Departed Souls: Things That Shape Us

I got caught off guard.

As I went through the entrance of the Christchurch Art Gallery, I was greeted by the gigantic picture of…

myself…

I was there for the opening of the “Things That Shape Us” exhibition that began yesterday on 24 July.

As those who know me will know, I am a very private person and do not always enjoy “publicity”.

I am aware that it is a necessary evil to keep doing what I love to do, which is to devote my life to rakugo until my very last breath, but it did make me feel a little uneasy and exposed if I’m to be honest.

But I was there to witness the story that my creative partner Fiona Amundsen and I wanted to tell through our work “An Ordinary Life”.

This work is based on actual and imaginary dialogues with my late grandfather, who was a witness of the bombing of Nagasaki.

Before I talk about this work, I’d like to be clear that it is NOT our attempt to victimise Japan or Japanese; I am deeply ashamed of our colonial past and what my ancestors did particularly to other Asian and Pacific nations.

It is our attempt to capture something universal, regardless of our race, nationality, belief, or religion, through my personal experience with my grandfather whom I deeply adored and respected.

It is a very personal account that is now open to the public.

My grandfather was an unconventional man for his generation.

He turned an artist (calligrapher/ shakuhachi, bamboo flute master), a teacher, a pacifist, and even a feminist after the war.

He was the funny grandpa who always made people laugh even in the toughest of circumstances.

He was a flamboyant man and…

a very bad driver.

He was an excellent liar, too.

He had hidden most of his experiences in Nagasaki where he lost his father and siblings.

Very, very well.

Painfully well.

Until his departure.

The inspiration for this work came when my mother told me about his journals on his deathbed.

They were full of darkness.

My mother destroyed all of the journals “to protect his honour”, and I was told what was written in there very selectively.

This made me want to know who this funny, cultured man really was.

I don’t even remember why, but Fiona and I talked about where my grandfather would be now before the opening.

My answer was, “He must be still on this side of the Sanzu River” (in the limbo state, somewhere between the worlds of the dead and the living, in the Japanese worldview).

At 4:00PM, all the artworks were blessed by karakia (Māori prayer).

Fiona said something like “Your grandfather is now blessed through karakia”.

I felt like my grandfather had finally moved on, but I was not too sure.

That night I was woken up in the middle of the night by a strange sensation as if some form of transformation was taking place.

Like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.

Rebirth.

I was convinced that he had finally gone to the other side of the river and fallen asleep peacefully.

The next morning, I woke up to a text from my wife to tell me that our last remaining family member from the WWII generation had passed away.

Now all the family members who witnessed the war are gone.

A circle has been completed.

We must keep telling their stories on their behalf so that we will not repeat the same mistakes.

So that we will not lose our “ordinary life” that, after all, matters the most.

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