This Floating World is a Dream

I just saw Kurasawa’s The Hidden Fortress for the first time tonight. I can’t believe it took me this long.

Probably everyone knows that The Hidden Fortress was one of George Lucas’s primary inspirations for Star Wars, so I won’t go into that. I just want to call out one of my favorite scenes in the movie: the Fire Festival scene.

NewImageScreenshot from

The Fire Festival (himatsuri), the internets tell me, is a festival to “illuminate the path through the world of the living for the spirits of the departed.” In the movie, the peasants light a huge bonfire and dance around it to the beat of taiko, singing. As one film blogger says, the scene is “either a gorgeous song & dance routine inserted at just the right moment or a massively bad interruption of the action-packed story — depending on your point of view.” I go with the first view.

General Rokoruta and Princess Yuki, last survivor of the recently defeated Akizuki clan, along with their other companions, are forced to take part in the Festival to hide from the enemy soldiers of the Yamana clan. That’s Princess Yuki in the screenshot above, with the Romulan eyebrows. Doesn’t she look like she’s having fun? It was noticeable, actually, how peaceful and serene she looked as she danced in that great circle around the bonfire, especially compared to the tense looks on the faces of Rokoruta (Toshiro Mifune — he’s the dark figure to the right of her) and her other companions. I wish I could show you that scene, but I can’t find it on youtube. But I did find this one:

Isn’t it beautiful? The scene is the night before the General’s and Princess’s impending execution. Rokoruta has just apologized to Yuki for having failed her. Yuki tells him that the last few days were the best of her life, as she saw how the people lived in the real world outside her castle. She regrets nothing.

Hito-no ichochi-wa hito moyase.
(Burn a human life like a fire)
Mushi-no inochi-wa hi-ni suteyo.
(Throw an insect’s life into a fire)
Omoi-omoe-ba Yaminoyoya.
(Think it over. How dark this world is!)
Ukiyo-wa yume-yo. Tada-kurue.
(The floating world is no less than a dream. Just go crazy.)

— Literal translation of the Fire Festival song, thanks to a commenter on the IMDb discussion boards.

It’s a turning point for her, and perhaps for another character in the film, as well.

I like how Kurasawa uses folk practice (the himatsuri) not just for “cultural color,” but to illustrate one of the themes of the movie itself. It’s like the use of the water buffalo sacrifice ritual during the final confrontation between Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (the sacrifice was an actual Ifugao ritual). Or my absolute favorite of these scenes: the rice planting song at the end of Seven Samurai.

The Lords and the Shoguns come and go, the Samurai die out. But the villagers and the village life endure.

This floating world is a dream. Burn with abandon.

The Fun is in the Trip

A Texas cowboy lay down on a barroom floor,
Having drunk so much he could drink no more;
So he fell asleep with a troubled brain,
To dream that he rode on a hell-bound train.

The engine with murderous blood was damp,
And was brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp; 
An imp for fuel was shoveling bones,
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans.

The boiler was filled with lager beer,
And the Devil himself was the engineer;
The passengers were a most motley crew
Church member, atheist, Gentile and Jew.
“The Hell-Bound Train”; traditional, from Songs of the Cowboys, 1921, collected by Jack Thorp

Cowboys worry a lot about hell, don’t they?

“The Hell-Bound Train” is a traditional cowboy song, basically on the same theme as “Riders in the Sky”. A drunk old cowboy dreams of a train to hell. Its demonic engineer taunts his terrified passengers about the sinful lives they’ve led — “You’ve bullied the weak, you’ve robbed the poor, The starving brother you’ve turned from the door” — and how it’s time for them to have their due. The whole experience frightens the poor cowboy so much that he turns from his drunken ways: “he never rode the hell-bound train.”

Chuck Berry did a nice version of the song in 1955 (it was the B-Side to “No Money Down”). His version is called “Downbound Train”, and the Devil talks about the train approaching “home”, instead of that other H-place. Other than that, the lyrics are close to Jack Thorp’s version.

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House of the Rising Sun

Happy Easter!

Today, rather than the “folk-like” songs from my last two posts, let’s talk about an actual folk song, one of my favorites: The House of the Rising Sun; or as it was originally known, The Rising Sun Blues.

The House of the Rising Sun
The House of the Rising Sun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There is a house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun. 
It's been the ruin of many a poor girl
and me, O God, for one.
Opening lyrics, as sung by Georgia Turner to Alan Lomax in 1937

The best known version of the song is the 1964 version, by The Animals:

In the Animals’ version, the singer is a male, the son of a gambler who has abandoned his wife and child for “The House of the Rising Sun” — either a gambling house or a bar. At least, that’s how I understand the story. One of the attractive aspects of this song is how ambiguous it is, both in its story line and in its origins. For one thing, who’s singing the song — a woman, or a man? And what’s happening?

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Johnny Cash, The Wild Hunt, and Lord Shiva

An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw 

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

Yippie yi Ohhhhh
Yippie yi yaaaaay
Ghost Riders in the sky

“Riders in the Sky” was written by Stan Jones, and first recorded by Burl Ives in 1949. My favorite version is the 1979 recording by Johnny Cash:


The old cowboy in the song sees the devil’s herd riding through the sky, chased by the exhausted ghosts of damned cowboys, who will never catch them. One of the ghosts stops and warns the old cowboy to mend his ways, or he, too, will be chasing the herd for all eternity.

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The Devil Went Down to Georgia

Whoosh! It’s been a minute since my last post, hasn’t it?

For some reason, I’ve been listening to what you might call “folkloric music” lately. That is, music that tells a folktale or a tall tale — or at least, a “folktale-like” story. ┬áToday’s example: Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.

The Devil Went Down to Georgia
The Devil Went Down to Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The song tells the story of a fiddle player named Johnny, who is challenged to a fiddle contest by the devil. If Johnny wins, he gets a solid gold fiddle —

But if you lose, the Devil gets your soul…

Here’s the Primus version, which I admit I like better than the Charlie Daniels’ version. It comes with a cool Claymation video:

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Dance and Be Glad

Then young women will dance and be glad, 
   young men and old as well. 
I will turn their mourning into gladness; 
   I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. 

-- Jeremiah 31:12 (New International Version)

Winter in San Francisco: Sunny and warm. It must be in the sixties today. The sun still traverses the sky low and to the south. All day, the light gives us glow, not glare. I can’t sit still with a book. I think I’ll dance.

Photo: Odell Hussey

This article on dance and mental acuity has been making the rounds with some of my Facebook friends. It’s an old study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I’d read about it before, around the time that it was published. The researchers measured the relationship between rates of dementia and rates of physical and cognitive recreational activities, over a 21 year study of people aged 75 or more.

Of the physical activities, only dancing reduced the risk of dementia — and it reduced the risk more than any other activity, physical or cognitive. Many of you will be as happy as I am to know that reading corresponded to a significant risk reduction as well — but unfortunately, writing did not.

So, I’m going to my sunny living room to connect more neurons. I hope you all take a little time to do the same.

To see you walk makes the peacocks dance
To see your face makes the moonlight dance

Peacocks dance, moonlight dances
Your dancing captures your lover's heart

From Nachde (Dance), sung by Sabar Koti. The verse above isn’t actually the one being sung in the snippet, but it’s my favorite.