"Fireworks fall, leavingg a single star"(Hoitsu).
Fireworks are often called the art of the ephemeral, but I'm not so sure about this. I wonder whether the love of fireworks really has anything in common with reverence for the cherry blossoms, though both scatter and fall bravely.
One can certainly say, as Ogatsu Kyosuke did in his book "Fireworks: The Art of Fire", that "Fireworks blossom gorgeously in the sky and next moment fade away. It is this expendability that constitutes their beauty; the art of fireworks is an art of complete consumption in which nothing remains behind." No doubt many would agree.
"Not a tattoo on the sky, the many-colored dots of fireworks permeate the night and are no more."
Yosano Akiko wrote a number of poems about fireworks, including the one just quoted. She compares the instant when the fireworks flower in the night sky to a tattoo, but only to deny the likeness. She tries to keep them somehow from fading, in the form of an afterimage of "many-colored dots". Fireworks are not tattoos on the night sky, like the fixed stars. Yet the Japanese have such a craving for the poignantly ephemeral that they will perceive it in anything and everything, even the stars.
Every summer, I go to see the fireworks display in Izu. I watch from the water, on a fishing boat chartered with a party of friends. These "fleeting" fireworks illuminate the night sky for a good two hours. To persist in pining over such "fleetingness" seems to me the height of boredom, but somehow I always find myself watching till the end. And I sometimes think that it is this very boredom that is the real appeal of a fireworks display. "Distant fireworks-a desolation like water."
"Watching fireworks, an hour later I drop off to sleep." (Yamaguchi Seishi)
I feel a good deal more sympathy for the poet who falls asleep an hour later than for the one who is moved to "desolation like water." Every year a member of our party, unable to wait for the fireworks to start, will drink so many beers that he dozes off with his back to the moon, only to wake up just as the show is ending. This seems not so much a waste as a true luxury.
One could perhaps think of fireworks as a symbol not of the ephemeral but of luxury.
The Japanese like to think that fireworks have a uniquely Japanese history, but in fact they were first introduced from either England or China. The art of fireworks depends on gunpowder, and they originated as a by-product of the weapons of war. Once Japan was closed to outside contacts and the shogun's rivals were subdued, the gunpowder that the Japanese had gone to much trouble to master languished in disuse.
One could even say that the refinement of fireworks in the Edo period was a result of the boredom of peacetime. The otherwise useless gunpowder was fired extravagantly into the midsummer-night sky. This was luxury with a touch of the ephemeral.
The fireworks of Izu each have a sponsor. In Edo the sponsors were the daimyo, but in today's peacetime, the Heisei period, they are business firms. As each rocket is launched, the name of the corporate sponsor is announced. This could be annoying, but actually I rather enjoy it.
Kusamori Shin'ichi critic
Translated by Geraldine Harcourt