A month ago I lost a very close friend. This would not be the proper place to write about it, except for the fact that despite her not being Japanese, her profound understanding of Japan and her love for the country were the lifeblood of her artistic career.
As an Australian artist, set designer and costume designer, Jennie Tate discovered her true voice in Japan. When she passed away on Dec. 28 last year, the Australian theater community was brought together in grief. In a profession that reeks of factionalism, jealousies and grudges, that was rare indeed.
I had known Jennie since the late 1970s, but it wasn’t until she began coming to Japan in the early ’80s that we became friends. She was a person who approached Japanese aesthetics intuitively, through passion for detail, shape and color. She had little time for the academic approach to things Japanese, though she was not averse to delving deeply into concepts when she found them useful to her creativity.
She was able to probe the depths of Japanese culture thanks to this approach, which always emphasized the sensual over the cerebral. The best example of that, perhaps, was the work she did in the autumn of 2006 in Tokyo.
Jennie came to the Center for the Study of World Civilizations at Tokyo Institute of Technology to teach a six-week course on filmmaking that I (as a faculty member) had arranged for her. She chose the Sumida River as the topic for the students’ films.
It was clear, as Jennie took over the course, that her methodology was not the usual film-company one. There was no scriptwriting in the traditional manner. Instead, the students were asked to come up with images, or qualities, through which they could tell a story about the river, its past and present, its day and night, its presence. The students responded brilliantly to this challenge, some looking at the ideas of flow and shadow, others concentrating on the banks, buildings and the movement of people along the river.
The essence of everyday life
Jennie was making her own film about the Sumida River as well; and during her stay at the university, she came up with wonderful footage from along its length. She also interviewed ferrymen whose families had plied its waters for generations.
In other words, she saw the river not as a descriptive object but as a medium through which to come into contact with the essence of Japanese everyday life, from its mundanity to its poetry.
When she returned to Australia in January 2007, she applied for a government grant to finish the film. She was over the moon when she phoned me last year to say that she had received it. Now, sadly, the film will remain unfinished.
Jennie’s output was colossal. She worked with every major theater company in Australia, including designing the English-language production of Chikao Tanaka’s play about Nagasaki, “The Head of Mary,” for Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre, which toured Japan in 1995.
Jennie’s sets and costumes were not only for the theater. Her work for Opera Australia on productions such as “Tristan and Isolde” and “Andrea Chenier” was outstanding; and she was also production designer on feature films and for television.
As theater director Rodney Fisher, one of Jennie’s closest friends, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Jan. 11 this year, “No dress shop ever sold the clothes (she wore).” Jennie designed and made her own clothes, which were rich in various textures, theatrically contrasting her ample, fiery red hair. I always thought that she could have been a world-class fashion designer, had she wished.
Much of her sense for color and texture came from her understanding of Japanese design. Walking around Tokyo with Jennie was a treat of discovery. Once, while in Asakusa, she stopped short and shrieked.
“What is it?” I asked.
“My God, look at that!” she said, rushing into an exquisite little shop that sold handmade brushes of every size and description. We stayed there nearly an hour. She had a fascination with foxes and their role in Japanese folklore, and adored the Kenji Miyazawa story “Snow Crossing,” whose main character is Konzaburo the wily fox. Her storyboards for her Sumida River film even featured little foxes popping up here and there.
Fragments of local pottery
When, in 2000, I brought my Adelaide Festival production of Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” to Tokyo and Nagoya, Jennie, who designed the staging, came here as well. One cold, early March day, we went to Seto, a district known for ceramics in Aichi Prefecture, and walked along the mud walls there embedded with fragments of local pottery. We sat down at one farmhouse by the walls and had a cup of green tea. Jennie was in heaven. The textures of the walls, the straw roof, the steam from the tea, all under a suitably muted, gray sky . . . these were the things she loved most about Japan.
In the mid-’90s, Jennie discovered that she had breast cancer. In fact, the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes and it wasn’t at all sure she would survive. She made a complete recovery, however, and told us that she was “grateful to the cancer” for giving her a more intense appreciation of life.
I saw her many, many times both here and in Australia in the intervening years, often working with her for months, and there was no indication that the cancer was returning. Last September she celebrated her 60th birthday at home in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. The street where she lived was closed off for the party.
Immediately after that she went off to Croatia to work on an Australian-Croatian film, “Penelope,” directed by Ben Ferris. She returned at the end of November in high spirits, ready to complete her film on the Sumida River.
But in the second week of December, she felt suddenly exhausted. Tests revealed that cancer had entered her liver and bones. I spoke with her on the phone, but only for about 30 seconds.
“I’m so tired,” she said. “Sorry. I’ll see you in the new year.”
But that was it. She didn’t see in the new year.
Jennie never married, and left no children. But she left those of us who loved her with indelible memories of her as someone who turned her passion for Japan into art, and lived her life truly and creatively according to that passion.