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Dreaming up The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood

2nd September, 2021

Story, influence, germs and how I started.

To provide a gross precis of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of story, the hero fights to achieve their quest, wins and returns home changed by the attempt. This ‘quest’ framework looks forward, but there are those of us who are unable to set forth because the ropes of regret hold us back.

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893.

Raymond Carver, Elroy and many since understood this, because their detectives and those they chased were conflicted by the daily reminders of human degradation. The betrayals, the moral compromises, the innocence lost; so overcome by the complications of life, characters were unable to continue the quest. This darker reading of humanity has always been attractive. Perhaps Carver was following a Greek tracing, in which a person may try to avoid their fate, but ultimately, is beaten by what, deep down, they knew would come to pass. This pessimism may seem a twentieth century thing, but in truth, is a kind of human curse. Is it the origin of the Christian birthmark of sin absolved by the grace of god? Shame and guilt printed on the unborn always seemed a little harsh to me, but it’s a powerful place to start a character.


Peter Laurie, Quicksand, 1950

Though at times I’ve tried not to, I write stories with a moral compass. Stories with obsessive characters, with desires and wicked or random complications, but above all, my stories start with a germ…in the sense that all threads unwind from a single idea.

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Kobikicho Arayashiki Koiseya Ochie by Utamaro Kitagawa

So, walking Napier Street Fitzroy in Melbourne in the 2010’s, past the Edwardian-arched kindergarten I attended, past the spot where my father leaned over the terrace balcony, actor’s voice silencing a child’s frantic cries of ‘I don’t want to go’, the spot where he ordered me to ‘Stop that nonsense Matthew~~~ off to school’; searching suddenly familiar gutters for discarded notes, flicking through the scrapbook of my reminiscences, I recalled a newspaper article about a veteran of the Pacific War whose wish was to return a Japanese soldier’s sword. I remembered the picture of an ordinary man, home from the jungle horrors to a ticker tape parade, and someone advised not to mention the experience because how could you convey such degradation, because who would want to hear? And in the newspaper picture capturing the moment the sword passed between ex-soldier and son of ex-soldier, after half a century, a souvenir was returned, an instrument of misery thereby, somehow, transformed into a symbol of redemption.

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Japanese Edo period wood block print (ca 1735) of a samurai with a tachi

Art sometimes describes a wrong made right, and by extension, the wish that the wrong were never done. A curse story is based on this germ of morality–do not do this or else… the ‘or else’ bit is the curse. It’s a warning of dire misfortune that in these desperate times of war, greed, corruption, self-serving bastardy, pandemic and environmental disaster attention to the lessons of the past must be paid.

Up to then, mainly I’d written plays which concerned betrayals long hidden. It’s strong with me; I have a thing with loyalty. And wandering Fitzroy lanes, I think I was trying to bust out, trying to step away from the fractured tales of past wrongs causing present ill–maybe I was looking for Campbell’s square-jawed youngster, naïve to the terrible ills the world was yet to show. Poor fool… I walked through the author’s forest of plots in a circle back to where I began. Because the germ had already attached to an object, an artefact, weighed down with wrongdoing, returned unhealed; what else could this story concern but the pain of hideous memories wrinkled in the fake smile of the old man in the newspaper photograph.


Hokusai Katsushika, Head of an old man, 1840

I worked in Japanese theatre from the early nineties and from the naughts spoke Japanese in surrealist vaudeville style tent shows. Which is why the news story on a Japanese sword appealed I guess… but a sword? It recalled too much of cartoons, of American dubbing, far-away stares and poorly disguised rope tricks like the afterschool adventure series Shintaro the Samurai.

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Ose Koichi as The Samurai.

It was around the time of my Fitzroy wanderings that the National Gallery of Victoria showed some of their archive of ukiyoe­, Japanese woodblock prints.


Hokusai Katsushika, Shimotsuke Kurokami-Yama Kurifuri no Taki, 1833

Step back a little; at the Royal Easter Show in 1974, though cautioned by the attendant not to splatter the paint, I won the art prize because I produced a Jackson Pollock-like render of the Easter fireworks. Pollock’s very abstract Blue Poles was bought in 1973 by art dealer Max Hutchison and approved by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and despite that the population was still furious with the one-point-three million spent on paint drips, the adjudicators must surely have seen me as the next incarnation.

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Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952.

I was a horse-rider, so when we went to the Sydney Morning Herald office for prize-winner pictures, I saw the second-prize girl’s water colour horses gambolling across her bright butcher’s paper and understood the feeling of imposter syndrome. It might not have been my first intersubjective moment of art-viewing, but it will do to describe the spark that ignited an appreciation of the render of real-world in two-dimensional space mediated by the artist.

After seeing the NGV ukiyoe exhibit, I decided to swap out the Australian veteran’s stolen Japanese sword for a Japanese wood cut.


Hanga (print block) for Kunisada Utagawa print, 1830; Brooklyn Art Museum

It was a germ, I recall writing into the early hours… of cherrywood and ghosts-past, carvers and artists; of the spirit of the wood, of sakura (cherry trees) of Japanese animism, of kimono, of love found, abused and lost.

演劇 クロスビーのステージ

By that time I had met Kim Sujin, the Korean Japanese theatre director of Shinjuku Ryozanpaku, who welcomed me into the company rehearsal room under the railway arches with a run-through of The Legend of the Flying Dragon in progress, bookshelves shaking in the cramped space as the trains passed overhead. It was a story arising from childhood memories carried within the power of a river stone suspended in a cradle of string from the vibrating roof. Over the time of writing “The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood” I worked on Shinjuku Ryozanpaku theatre projects speaking Japanese, touring Japan, Korea and Australia:

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Touring map

…and I lived at their base a few stops from Shinjuku for a time, it was a cultural apprenticeship unlike the more usual foreign English tutor’s. Underground bunkers, knee to chin watching or performing in wild stories dripping with symbol, innuendo and thin puns.

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Crosby with Yun in Beggar of Love, Kara Juro, Dir. Kim Sujin, 2000, 2002: Excerpt (no subtitles!)

So the cultural history received from my father’s post-war experience at the excellent but very Queen’s English Royal Academy of Dramatic Art was channelled into a Japanese theatre tradition equally as long. My writing gained influence from writers such as Kara Juro, Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Soseki Natsume, or in more recent times, Murakami Haruki and Ishiguro Kazuo. My novel travelled Melbourne to Tokyo with a foot in a tent theatre and another in the yakuza (Japanese organised crime).

As is my way, the pen scribbled over the page without pause for days and I think within a week I had written an eighty-page manuscript; the sword was a part, but a hanga (wood block), was the object that carried ancient betrayal. That was ten years and three books ago. The time has been spent travelling from the present tense of that first manuscript, in which an Australian cop and a Japanese yakuza were entangled, forwards toward unavoidable fates, while at the same time receding through generations, as far back as the tenth century when the last Empress of Japan reigned. I became my detective, unearthing roots of trouble era by era, dancing across unstable pavers of consequence to the seat of the crime.

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Sherlock Holmes, Sidney Paget, 1904.

I still think of that long afternoon spent wandering the laneways of Fitzroy. When I set out that day, I had no idea that I went to kindergarten on Napier street–I literally chanced upon the front arch and recognised a part of my past buried there–this must have been the place I thought; and continued up the street to where I would therefore find the place my father’s booming voice commanded me to set off. After all, maybe I’m Campbell’s hero, and my quest is the story itself.

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浮世絵 ukiyo-e in The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood

Drafting a novel on art.

2nd October, 2021

I wrote ‘The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood’ around ukiyoe and there’s a lot to think about.

‘The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood’ is a story with ukiyoe (Japanese woodblock prints) at its heart. The Floating World prints are often billed as a representation of ‘real’ life, but that version of reality was mediated by the explosion of popular culture that flowed from the end of protracted civil war, new systems of administration and technology, and a wider distribution of wealth.

These days life is seen through a digital lens. Slo-mo, high-def, 16-bit, megapixel cameras deliver uncountable versions presenting candied snaps of self within #InsertAdjective life-stories. It’s a fiction created by us for us, a mass-culture, a global economy, a social experiment of twenty-year longitude. We edit these pictures before publishing, colouring our world in the manner we wish to project.

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Crosby, Google search ‘Insta selfie’, 2020.

Since early in the twentieth century, phenomenologists considered the relationship of the self to the phenomena of the world. One could discover the self by studying the way one sensed the things about–a kind of comparison of me to it. Visual art is a record of the historical changes of this perception. The vision of the Renaissance, Neo-Classicism, Impressionism, Post-Modernism or in Japan, Tosa, Rinpa, Kano could be described as a culture’s selfie, that is, a construction of reality. Using the innovation of oil paint, Renaissance painters glorified the gods and their patrons with lush portraits while much of Europe starved. The discovery of buried relics in Italy and Greece drew the aristocratic 18th century Neo-classical eye to cool marble antiquities, their cousins the Romantics created narratives around the associated mythology, morality and political discourse of ‘those fab-halcyon days’ while women fought for suffrage.

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John Turnbull, Romantic Landscape, 1783.

All these schools placed the privileged viewer at the centre by using Brunelleshi’s perspective experiment of the early 15th century when he drew a grid on a mirror to chart the lines of recedence. But glass mirrors were not seen in Japan until the Dutch brought them in the late 18th century, by which time systems of depicting symbol and narrative were very well established.

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Utamaro Kitagawa, Woman looking at her face in mirror, c. 1800.

The religious stories of Chinese Buddhism used natural phenomena like trees, rocks, rivers and mountains as symbols of philosophy and devotion. Receiving that influence, the Japanese art movements such as

Tosa…

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Tosa Mitsuoki, Kashiwagi – Tales of Genji, 16th century.

Kano…

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Kano Eino, Birds and Flowers of Spring and Summer, latter half of 17th century.

Rinpa…

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Ogata Korin, Irises at Yatsuhashi Bridge, 1709.

provided a method of representation and arranging the phenomena of the real world in two-dimensional space in a uniquely Japanese way. Western perspective drawings and paintings came to Japan from the early 18th century in Dutch traders, but were largely rejected by local artists who preferred, rather than to adhere slavishly to the vanishing point with its individualistic viewing mode, to create schemes of representation with meaningful placement of symbolic objects. Kennichi Sasaki explains the eastern concept of removing middle-ground, often lost in mist, to give a sense of energy or ki to the landscape. He links ukiyoe to received Chinese traditions of sansui (mountain + water), in which human figures are subsumed by their surrounds.

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Sesshū Toyo, Folding screen landscape, Muromachi period.

Masters such as Hiroshige and Hokusai in the early 1800’s experimented with western linear perspective, incorporating both systems of representation… castles float among expansive clouds, Mt Fuji floats above, while common people struggle between cramped lines below.

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Hokusai Katsushika, Nihonbashi bridge in Edo, 1830

色相Colour

The Tokugawa Shoguns ruled from 1603 to 1856 turning an eastern fishing town into a city of one million residents called Edo (Tokyo). Many of them read books, looked at posters and bought clothing from catalogues. Halfway through the 18th century, when the demand for printed books reached 100,000 per-year, when post-print colour-wash posters advertised the latest kabuki theatre or calendars asked readers to guess the short and long months of the year, a more efficient means of bringing colour became necessary.

It’s a sign of my utter disorganisation in drafting that I advanced so far with the first draft of ‘Cherrywood’ before I considered the innovation of colour. Victoria Finlay’s book ‘Colour, travels through the paintbox’ shows the far-flung places that the western masters sourced their brilliant colours. The use of colour in Japanese art is no less important to the development of its culture, and when I examined my association with ukiyoe, I realised that the ‘floating world’ that beckoned to me was singing in tones of pigment. In my story ‘Cherrywood’, colour-print technology is conceived by divine inspiration given to a single artist–but the truth is always more prosaic. A collective approach was necessary in woodcut printing, as publisher, designer, carver and colourist created efficiencies in production. It makes sense therefore that though Suzuki Harunobu is credited with the first colour (calendar) print in 1764…

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Harunobu Suzuki, Colour woodblock print. Parody of the Three Vinegar Tasters, with (left to right) Ono no Komachi, Yang Guifei and perhaps Murasaki Shikibu respectively replacing Laozi, Buddha and Confucius. Picture calendar (e-goyomi) for the year 1766 (Meiwa 3); date indicated by the numbers in the two bands around the jar. British Museum.

that the technology that made this possible was developed in collaboration over time. Registration of different colour passes on the one sheet was crucial, so a carver it must have been that invented the kento tabs for the paper to sit justified between blocks; no doubt a colourist, who had worked on after-print washes to then, drank tea… mm, more likely saké, with some paper suppliers and was offered a sheet of of hosho paper, which was strong enough for repeated rubbings. And the pigments themselves were of no concern, as vegetable pigments were popular from lipstick to lacquerware.

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Writing box and brush with mountain landscape scene, Japan, Edo period, 19th century, gold lacquerware, Cincinnati Art Museum

The publisher found a merchant to sponsor the enterprise and the artist Harunobu was called to design. It’s important for magic realism not to lose sight of the real bit. So while I read of the recurring theme of the ‘divine boy’ in shinto texts, who might have provided the singular inspiration I desired, I researched the actual use of colour. Not till the turn of the 19th century did imported mineral pigments such as the Prussian blue seen in Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ or in ‘Nihonbashi Bridge’ (above) come to be used. Before that time, safflower made red, dayflower blue, amur cork or turmeric yellow, ground shells white and lamp soot made black with rice starch to thicken and apply the mix. Some of these, particularly the safflower and dayflower are extremely sensitive to light, and so many of 18th century prints display colour faded, changed or absent.

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Utamaro Kitagawa, Flowers of Edo: Young Woman’s Narrative Chanting to the Samisen, 1800

I took this cultural fantasy of Edo for the mis-en-scene of the first part of Book 1 of ‘Cherrywood’ and relieved it with some of the more gritty truths that are available in many of the excellent English accounts, for example by Timon Screech on foreign influence, or Nishiyama Matsunosuke on Nihonbashi culture, or Yabuta Yutaka’s paper on the women of Edo. Understanding both the real life and the way Edoites wished to see themselves was important for my story because ukiyoe was where I commenced the writing. I must accept that the poor reader, only has my say so, and though I take that responsibility with care, I must also follow my heart in the telling. Harunobu’s prints of courtesan’s holding kimono closed against the wind,

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Harunobu Suzuki, Girls at the shore, 1765-70. British Museum.

Hiroshige’s exquisitely composed postcards of famous touring spots

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Hiroshige Utagawa, Back View of Mt.Fuji from Dream Mountain in Kai Province, 1852.

Hokusai’s transcendent representations of nature

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Hokusai Katsushika, The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaidō, 1832.

these were views not just looking through the roof upon court scandals, or ancient mythologies on gold-leaf screens, but depicted all facets of society. Ultimately all we have left, Japanese or foreigner, are the second or third-hand accounts interpreted by writers and these mass-produced snapshots to understand how central was the appreciation of culture in Edo, and how widespread its influence in projecting the identity Japan wished for itself.