Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Akatonbo Revisited

Lead by Sherry Li's baton, I had the honor to sing the “Akatonbo” song in Japanese and Chinese with the two dozen members of the Taiwan Toastmasters Chorus group at the welcoming reception of the D67 Fall Convention Dinner before an audience of one thousand. Sherry wrote that she chose “Akatonbo” simply because of its beautiful melody. “Akatonbo” is also a song about a dear childhood relationship. It can be seen as a metaphor to describe the connections between Taiwan and Japan. “Akatonbo” has many versions of translations in Chinese, but I like the one picked by Sherry. It was equally beautiful even in Chinese to wonder which came first as the original.

It goes as follows:

xiang xie zhao hong qingting zai shuibien wufei
yin wo xiangqi duoshao nianqian nanwang de tongnian

This drove me to look into the history about how the song came to be written - researching further on what I wrote in a previous entry that referred to the poet Rofu Miki (1889-1964) and composer Kosaku Yamada (1886-1965).

Yamada composed 76 songs for Miki, of which, “Nobara” (wild rose) came in the 1910s and “Akatonbo” came in the l920s. Yamada was in Germany from 1910 to 1913 and his “Butterfly" song melody was from a Spanish ballad. Yamada composed for another famous poet, Hakushu Kitahara (1885-1942) after Miki, producing beautiful “Karatachi no Hana” (trifoliate orange tree) and “Konomichi” (I remember this road ). Yamada composed also many school songs for universities and high schools. I noticed he composed one for Taipei Third Junior High.

Yamada's life was under a cloud upon his return from Germany. He went to the Shonan (near Kamakura) area, and commuted to Tokyo by train. It is reported that he composed "Akatonbo" while commuting between Shonan and Tokyo. As Franz Shubert (1797-1828) said, "Grief and misforturne is the mother of fine music." Common between Yamada and Miki was the influence of Christianity. Yamada's father was a minister and his brother-in-law was Edward Gauntlet (1868-1965), also a minister and educator. Yamada was raised at home listening to hymns. Miki became an ardent Christian as a teacher in the Trappist Monastery in Hokkaido. His “Akatonbo” poem was composed there in 1921.

Rofu was an ill-fated person separated from his mother at the age of seven. According to his autobiography, one morning he went to school after being sent off by his mother, but when he returned home, she was gone. He was not told in detail why his mother had left. But she was apparently grieving about her separation from her son. It is easy to imagine how deep Rofu's grief was. Since that day, Rofu was brought up by his grandfather.

The name of the poem is “Akatonbo”, but the poem is filled with his deep affection directed toward his mother. Noriko Wada, author of the "Akatonbo Scenery" analyzes the poem by sections and the poet's age. Rofu was 1-2 years old as he was on the back of mother (first paragraph). 3-5 year old Rofu is picking mulberries in the backyard (second paragraph). Around 10 years old Rofu's maid (nanny) left the house to marry (third paragraph). Another abandonment. Of course, he loved his maid but it did not compare to his affection for his mother. Rofu had to be mentally strong and independent.

Rofu in Hokkaido watching an Akatonbo at the end of the pole and reminiscing his hometown. Noriko Wada pointed out that there was a minute change between the first version and the second and final version of “Akatonbo” within a period of 3-4 months. The word Akatonbo appeared in the first paragraph, instead of the mountain, a very delicate change, but important, as per Noriko Wada.

In Taiwan, “Akatonbo” was immediately followed by “Amazing Grace” by coincidence, but to me, it was the most wonderful pairing that Sherry picked out.

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