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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (23/5/2023)

(Review of Exhibition on Film: Tokyo Stories)


It's four years since David Bickerstaff took Exhibition on Screen to Asia for Van Gogh & Japan (2019). He returns for Tokyo Stories, which takes its impetus from the 2021 Tokyo: Art & Photography show, which was held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to coincide with the pandemic-delayed Olympic Games. But the focus falls on a city that is forever reinventing itself by blending tradition and modernity.

Opening remarks over images of a dynamic and diverse metropolis testify to Tokyo's readiness to embrace change while retaining its essential character. Artforms and technologies may come and go, but the city takes them in its stride without diminishing its fascination. By contrast, Oxford moves rather more slowly, although the Ashmolean Museum has been transformed through recent building projects. Claiming to be the world's oldest museum, it has a substantial selection of Japanese artefacts, as director Alexander Sturgis confirms.

He and Clare Pollard, the museum's curator of Japanese Art explain that the Tokyo: Art & Photography exhibition was designed to explore the lines of continuity that exist over 400 years of creativity. As Lena Fritsch, the curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Ashmolean, points out, however, the team was keen to demonstrate that there is much more to Japanese art than ukiyo-e woodblock prints and manga. Consequently, the thematically organised show contained a mix of in-house treasures, iconic loans, and newly commissioned works.

We see examples from photographer Takano Ryudai's 2014 `Daily Snapshots' series and Nishino Sohei's `Diorama Map Tokyo' (2004), as Pollard and Fritsch discuss avoiding the pitfall of presenting an outsider's view of the city and its culture. Following a time-lapse clip of Sohei assembling the c.20,000 photographs in his map, he reveals that his aim was to show how the historical and the contemporary sit together in a universal moment by creating a memory of a city that is too varied to know completely.

Gallery owner Michael Hoppen claims that Sohei brings an element of obsession to the storytelling tradition in seeking to capture Tokyo in motion. However, it's not all bustle, as the charming shots of cherry blossom, birds, and fish suggest. But there are few traces of the past in a city that started out as the quiet fishing village of Edo. Indeed, what's so noticeable about the 17th-century folding screen, `The Plains of Musashi', is the emptiness of the locale.

Under warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, however, it became the capital of the shogunate and quickly came to rival the imperial centre of Kyoto. As we are shown `Military Dog Chasing Game' from the long-lived Kano School and an 18th-century ceremonial suit of samurai armour made for Oda Nobuhisa, Pollard expounds on how a tradition associated with violence actually flourished in a prolonged period of peace. This was when so many Japanese traditions emerged, from Noh and Kabuki theatre to sumo wrestling, and they were captured in the floating worlds created in ukiyo-e woodblocks, such as Hiroshige Utagawa's `The Opening of the River At Ryogoku' (c.1840) and Hiroshige Kuniyoshi's

`Scribbles on a Stonehouse Wall' (1848).

Pollard reveals that such prints cost the same as a bowl of noodles and would have been accessible to citizens of all classes. Particularly popular were images of the leading stage stars or the most beautiful courtesans, as in Utagawa Kuniyoshi's `The Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Kuzo II' (1856) and Kitigawa Utamaro's `The Courtesan Kisegawa of Matsubaya Brothel' (c.1796). Eclipsing them, at least to modern eyes, is Katsushika Hokusai's `Under the Wave Off Kanagawa' (c.1830-32).

Hiroshige specialised in prints showing famous places or `meisho', with `Suruga Street', `Clearing After Snow At Nihonbashi Bridge' (both 1856), `Sudden Shower At Ohashi Bridge, Ataka', and `Jumantsubo Plain At Susaki, Near Fukagawa' (both 1857) being part of the `One Hundred Famous Views of Edo' series. At the Ashmolean, these works were placed alongside Akira Yamaguchi's Hiroshige-influenced prints, `New One Hundred Views of Tokyo: Tokyo Tower' (2010), `New Sights of Tokyo: Tokaido Nihonbashi Revisited' (2012), and `Original Plan of Tokyo Metropolitan Government' (2018).

With Japan under pressure from Western powers to open its borders, the shogunate fell and the Emperor Meiji renamed Edo as Tokyo to reflect its status as his eastern capital. Kojima Shogetsu's triptych, `Ceremony Promulgating the Constitution' (1890), marks the change. Artistic ideas were exchanged, with Japonisme becoming popular in Europe, while works like Seiki Koroda's `Lakeside' (1897) and Arai Kou's `Female Chanter For Joruri Puppet Theatre' (c.1820) bearing the hallmarks of the prevailing continental style.

The influence of such pieces can still be seen in Aida Mokoto's `Uguisudari-zu' (1990), which sets a cherry tree against a backdrop of call girl cards to comment on the changing nature of a district that had become synonymous with love hotels and the yakuza. Similarly, as Fritsch notes, Western motifs can be detected in Matsui Fuyuko's `Nature Preserves the Form of Its Children' (2017),

Prior to the Meiji Restoration, Japan didn't have a word for `art' and Fritsch examines the ways in which photography and cinema helped shape the country's take on modernity. Archive footage shows trams and subway trains and people in Western clothing bustling on streets lined with department stores. However, nationalism also arose during this period, leading to the opening of the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. Art during this period tended towards propaganda (and is rather disappointingly sidelined). However, many artists in the 1960s used their work to explored their childhood traumas, including Keiichi Tanaami, whose `A Mirror Reflecting the World' (2022) still draws on his memories of the bombing of Tokyo and his fixation with the work of manga pioneer, Osamu Tezuka.

Natural disasters have also played their part in Tokyo's evolution and Pollard recalls the 19th-century vogue for namazu-e prints depicting giant catfish being held responsible for earthquakes. We see the unsigned `Citizens Subduing the Catfish of Edo and Shinshu Provinces' (1855) and hear the pertaining legend. Fritsch continues that an awareness of future catastrophe underpins the concept of `mono no aware', which turns on the fleetingness of existence. She illustrates her point with Ryuji Miyamoto's photographs of cardboard houses in Tokyo on 18-20 April 1994 and Yuko Mohri's 2009 pictures of subway leaks (`moré moré).

Mohri is intrigued by the fact that buckets, tape, and plastic sheeting create accidental artworks, with lots of yellows, blues, and reds. She jokes how installations like `Moré Moré (Leaky) Variations' (2022) often soak the gallery space. The Ashmolean show links such pieces with street art by Enrico Isamu Oyama, who discusses the thinking behind items like `FFIGURATI #273' (2021), which deploy his distinctive Quick Turn Structure motif.

He is not alone in absorbing American influence and Frisch highlights the Pop Art phase in Japan in the 1960s. We see a clip from Keiichi Tanaami's 1973 music video for John Lennon's `Oh Yoko!' and hear about the influence of Andy Warhol on such Vietnam protest posters as `Tokyo II' (1967) and `No More War' (1968), which features Twiggy. Fritsch uses Ushio Shinohara's `Doll Festival' (1966) to show how the contrasting US and Japanese styles merged.

Moving on to photography, we see some more of Takano Ryudai's Daily Snapshots in a flickering display, as well as his `Rest 3000 - Stay 5000' (2012) and Araki Nobuyoshi's splendid cat shot from `Photo Maniac's Diary' (1991). Michael Hoppen explores Japan's relationship with camera technology, as we see Felice Beato's `Shariki' (c.1860), which typified the trend for tourist souvenirs that fell below the artistry of Hokusai works like `Perfect Pictures At a Glance' (1818). In turn, these provide the bedrock for manga culture, as the Japanese are fascinated by pictorial stories.

Revealing that the Japanese word for photography, `sashin', means `reproducing truth', Fritsch takes up the point in relation to Eikoh Hosoe's `Selection From Simmon: A Private Landscape' (1971). Hodden notes that he made pictures rather than took them, as he spent hours refining the image in post-production. This links in with the cutting of woodblocks and shows how Japanese photographers sought to extend the visual language.

On a par was Daido Moriyama, who started out in the 1960s as a member of the Provoke freelance group. Hodden lauds the boldness of images like `Eros or something other than Eros' (1969) and commends the fact he is still taking pictures of the calibre of `Shinjuku' (2002). Moriyama calls this district `a stadium of desire' and he captures it in the son et lumière piece, `Record 26' (2014).

Over Chikanobu Toyohara's `Ueno Park At Night' (c.1895) and Utamaro Kuniyoshi's `The Courtesan Usugumo of the Tamaya Teahouse' (c.1835), Pollard considers how the Japanese depiction of beauty through details of costume and hairstyle changed after the 1870s. Physical features mattered less than a woman's spirit, knowledge of poetry, and calligraphic skills. Western influences made facial features more important in Shiro Kaasamatsu's `The Great Lantern At the Kannon Temple, Asakusa' (1934)

The `shin hanga' or New Print movement retained the ukiyo-e tradition, but incorporated international artistic influence in pieces like Shinsui Ito's `Catching Fireflies' (1931) and Hisui Sugiura's `Ginza Branch Open on April 10, 1930', which was a poster for the Mitsukoshi department store. This period also saw the nude became a part of Japanese art for the first time outside shunga erotic prints, in works such as Toraji Ishikawa's `Dance (Odori)' (1934).

Evolving alongside shin hanga was the `sosaka hanga' or Creative Print movement, whose adherents designed, cut, and printed their works rather than delegate different aspects of the process. Inspired by German Expressionism, Tadashige Ono produced social critiques in items like `Untitled (Ordinary Citizens)' (1933), which had their cinematic equivalent in the so-called `tendency films' of Daisuke Ito, Tomu Uchida, and Sadao Yamanaka.

Over Tadahiko Hayashi's `A Dancer Prone (Rooftop of the Nichegi Theatre, Yurakucho)' (1947), Fritsch laments that photography was a male-dominated form until the 1990s, when `onnonoko shashin' or Girly Photography made a splash. She highlights Mika Ninagawa's series, `Tokyo From Utsurundesu' (2018) and the photographer reveals that she is rebelling against old traditions, even if they are occasionally apparent in her work. She likes shooting in the Shibuya and Shinjuku districts and would prefer an image captured her emotional response to the subject to it being visually perfect. Fritsch also namechecks Tokyo Rumando, a former model who decided to depict herself and her world.

Shifting tack, Fritsch next talks about protest art that arose from the 1960s demonstrations against the Anpo Security Treaty that had been imposed by the United States, along with a postwaar occupation force. Examples of this countercultural backlash were Takashi Hamaguchi's `Kanda Ochanomizu, Tokyo' (1968) and `Farmer's Wife Narita Demonstration, Narita, Chiba' (1971). Fluxus (which included Yoko Ono) and Hi Red Centre pioneered performance and conceptual happenings, with their heirs including the experimental Chim-Pom collective.

We meet Ellie and Ushiro Ryuta, who explain the rationale behind the group and the `Super Rat' (2006-) project to capture rodents from the Tokyo streets and contrast them with the cuddly Pokémon character of Pikachu. When Ellie got married, they held her wedding on the street and filmed it as a performance piece entitled, `Love Is Over' (2014). This echoes Yoko Ono and John Lennon's honeymoon bed-ins in Amsterdam and Montreal, while the title evokes the `War Is Over' campaign. In a neat tie-up, the `Love Is Over' photograph included in the Ashmolean exhibition was taken by Kishin Shinoyama, who took the picture for John and Yoko's 1980 Double Fantasy album.

Fritsch ponders over shots of Kyoichi Tsuzuki's `Satellite of Love' (2001) and Takashi Murakami's `Death Multi' and `Hollow Blue' (both 2015) whether the imported term `art' has ever really applied to Japanese creativity. Pollard and Hoppen concur that Tokyo is also impossible to decipher, as new layers are forever emerging on top of the past. As for Oxford...

Positively leaping off the screen and hauling the viewer into the heart of Tokyo, this is Exhibition on Screen's most ambitious enterprise. The Ashmolean show is a convenient excuse to capitalise on the erudite expertise of Clare Pollard and Lena Fritsch, who weave the chronological and thematic strands together with clarity, authority, and enthusiasm. Michael Hoppen also makes a valuable contribution, although few of the artist interviews make as much of an impression, although Yuko Mohri's account of her leaky installation amuses.

Matching the boundless energy of the city and its art scene is David Bickerstaff, who directs, edits and co-scripts with producer Phil Grabsky, while also wielding a camera with Hugh Hood. Their views of the neon-shimmering megalopolis are wondrously atmospheric, with the richness of the colours conveying the character of the locales and making for intriguing contrasts with the hues in the ukiyo-e prints and the predominantly monochrome photographs.

As always, the close-ups of the images is first rate. But there's no time to pause and analyse either the content or form of the artworks, as there is so much to cram in. Perhaps that's why there is so little mention of manga and anime or of such outsider artists as Yayoi Kusama, whose polka-dotted career was covered so effectively by Heather Lenz in 2018's Kusama: Infinity. A lot less Chim-Pom might have helped matters. The inclusion of the new commissions probably justifies these profile spots, although those unfamiliar with the contemporary scene could have learned more from Pollard, Fritsch, and Hoppen than they do from the artists themselves.

A little more of Keiko Kitamura and Justin Senryu Williams's delightful koto and shakuhachi duets might have been nice. However, Asa Bennett's Jean-Michel Jarresque score certainly transmits the propulsive thrum of the latest incarnation of Tokyo, which will long continue to reinvent itself, catfish permitting.

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