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Obsessions in Tokyo

Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, November 18, 2012–February 25, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Doryun Chong
Museum of Modern Art, 216 pp., $55.00

Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1962–1984

a film series at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, December 6, 2012–February 10, 2013
Yamashita Kikuji/Nippon Gallery, Tokyo
Yamashita Kikuji: The Tale of Akebono Village, 1953


Mishima Yukio’s suicide in 1970 was a messy affair. First he plunged a short sword into his stomach, then a handsome young man from his private militia tried to cut off his head with a samurai blade and botched it three times before another follower completed the job. One way of looking at this bloody event is as a piece of performance art. Mishima had made sure the press would be there, at the Ichigaya military base in Tokyo, to record his call for an imperial restoration before he committed suicide. Mishima had asked a close friend at NHK, the national broadcasting company, whether the TV station might be interested in a live broadcast of his ritual disembowelment. The friend took this as one of Mishima’s morbid jests. It wasn’t.

Death had long been an artistic obsession of Mishima’s. In 1966, he directed a short film, Patriotism, in which he played the part of a young army officer in the 1930s committing seppuku (only foreigners say harakiri) to the music of Wagner’s Liebestod.

A year before his death, Mishima wrote a play based on a legend about a young Cambodian king who started building a beautiful temple, caught leprosy before it was finished, and rotted to death as the temple was completed. Mishima saw this story as “a metaphor for the life of an artist who transfuses a work of art with his entire existence and then perishes.”1

Two months before his suicide, Mishima posed for a portfolio of pictures by the fashionable photographer Shinoyama Kishin, to be entitled Death of a Man. The photographs showed Mishima as Saint Sebastian tied to a tree, his naked torso pierced with arrows, Mishima drowning in mud, Mishima’s head sliced by a hatchet, Mishima run over by a cement truck.

The novelist’s brutal death, though eccentric, was actually part of a wider culture. It came as the culmination of two decades in Japan during which visual artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers, poets, and musicians had been testing the limits of physical artistic expression: street performances, “happenings,” public action painting, sado-masochistic theater, and so on. Rather like in China today, the Japanese avant-garde art of the 1950s and 1960s often focused on the human body, sometimes in rather intense ways. Mishima’s suicide had pushed this type of performance art to a limit beyond which it would be difficult to go. Thus, his violent death is as good a way as any to mark the end of an era of artistic ferment, scandal, and experimentation.

When I first went to Japan, in 1975, the key figures of the avant-garde were still around: Terayama Shuji was still making films and putting on plays, Takemitsu Toru was composing his much-admired music, Hijikata Tatsumi was directing his Ankoku Butoh dance troupe, Yokoo Tadanori still made art, and Isozaki Arata was in his prime as an architect. But the former enfants terribles had become rather grand figures, with entourages and international reputations. The whiff of scandal had dissipated, with the possible exception of Oshima Nagisa’s hard-core cinematic masterpiece, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), about the true story of an obsessive erotic affair between a maid and an innkeeper, which ends with the maid strangling her lover and cutting off his penis. The film was butchered by the Japanese censors and led to a much-publicized court case.

Mishima, who had collaborated in various ways with most of these artists, was a legend. People still spoke of him with awe. This was odd in one respect: Mishima had become a figure of the extreme right, an ultra-nationalist who wanted to revive the samurai spirit and the cult of the Japanese emperor. He was exceptional in this way; other artists at the time certainly had no interest in reviving the samurai spirit, and in some cases were even linked to the radical left, which exploded in acts of “anti-imperialist” violence in the early 1970s.2

And yet, Mishima and other artistic rebels, though starkly divided in their ideals, had a common target, described by Mishima as a “lukewarm land” that had become “drunk on prosperity” and fallen into “an emptiness of spirit.”3 The bourgeois conformism of postwar Japan, with its worship of the television set, the washing machine, and the refrigerator (the “Three Sacred Treasures”), its slavish imitation of American culture, its monomaniacal focus on business, and the stuffy hierarchies of the academic and artistic establishments, had become insupportable to free-spirited Japanese, whatever the nature of their politics.

There was another source of popular discontent. Students, and initially millions of other citizens too, rebelled in the 1950s and 1960s against the US–Japan security treaties that turned Japan into a huge base for US military excursions in Asia, first in Korea, then in Vietnam. The treaties suited the Japanese elite; American wars were good for business. But they were deeply resented by many citizens. On one extraordinary occasion, in May 1969, Mishima debated with student radicals at Tokyo University. Dressed like a stylish tough in a black knit shirt and a tightly wrapped cotton waistband, Mishima told the two thousand assembled students that if only they would support the emperor, he would “gladly join hands” with them.4

The students were unimpressed. But so were the soldiers of the Self-Defense Force when Mishima harangued them, minutes before slitting his own stomach, about the warrior spirit and the need to die for emperor and nation. At least the students listened to the famous writer. The soldiers only jeered.


If 1970 makes a certain sense as the closing year of the Japanese avant-garde currently on show at MoMA, 1955 is about right as the mark of its beginning. For 1955 was the year when the two conservative parties, the Liberals and the Japan Democratic Party, merged to dominate Japanese politics for the rest of the century. Japan would be a US-backed bastion against communism in Asia—an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” in the words of one postwar Japanese prime minister. The middle class was deflected from political protest by promises of stability, security, and ever greater prosperity. Activism ended in failure.5

Before the middle of the 1950s, modern arts in Japan were very much preoccupied with the wartime catastrophe and its aftermath, the US occupation. Most artists were staunchly left-wing, sometimes affiliated with the Communist Party, and ideology permeated their work. There are some good examples of this in the MoMA exhibition. The so-called “reportage painting” school of artists drew on their background of making militarist propaganda in the 1940s, as well as on pre-war influences from European surrealism. This hybrid style, exemplified by Yamashita Kikuji’s oil paintings of corpses drowning in blood, or Ikeda Tatsuo’s more socialist realist paintings of brawny proletarian fists clutching shovels, was typical of the intense political engagement of artists who had direct experiences of the war.

It is a common belief that Japanese are almost congenitally incapable of facing the horrors of the war they unleashed. Some of the art in the MoMA show should help to dispel that caricature. Take a look, for example, at Hamada Chimei’s rather beautiful etchings of wartime desolation: ruined Chinese villages with speared heads and body parts; a female cadaver with a stake up its vagina. This is less reportage than a kind of surrealist protest art.

Many Japanese artists and intellectuals in the 1950s rebelled against the overwhelming American influence of the immediate postwar by looking to Europe, especially France, for ideas. Sartre, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty were widely read. French berets and long hair became the common badges of the thinking man (still in evidence today, among men of a certain age). The French action painter Georges Mathieu visited Japan in 1957, and demonstrated his art wearing a kimono. The Bauhaus was another source of inspiration. But the main point was to be engagé, and the main sponsor of engaged art was a most peculiar one: the conservative Yomiuri newspaper company, which had been the most zealous promoter of wartime propaganda only a few years before. To scrub this blot off its reputation, the Yomiuri did its best to promote avant-garde shows and events under a radical manifesto that promised an “art revolution”; Japanese society would be “democratized” through art.

Much of the actual art was derivative, and to younger artists, who were still children during the war, not radical or new, or original, enough. From the middle of the 1950s, new groups of artists emerged who were bored by political ideology, and had an aversion both to slavish Westernization and the higher forms of Japanese tradition, which had ossified into a museum culture and were tainted by wartime chauvinism. The new art would be instinctive, physical, outdoors, irrational, a Japanese Neo-Dada or Anti-Art. The influential poet and critic Takiguchi Shuzo wrote in 1954: “Perhaps we haven’t completely digested the movements and principles of Western art. Japanese contemporary art must exist in our guts and bones.”6

And so, to pick one example, the performance called “Challenging Mud” was born, in 1955, contrived by an artist named Shiraga Kazuo of the Gutai group, formed in Osaka. At the first Gutai art exhibition in Tokyo, Shiraga, naked but for a pair of boxer shorts, dived into a pile of mud and started violently thrashing about, injuring himself in the process. A photograph of the resulting mess can be seen at the MoMA show.7 It is all that is left of this work. But of course the point is not the artwork itself; it wasn’t made to last. The aim was to blast a way to a new type of artistic expression that would be “revolutionary for the whole world—East and West.”8

Another major figure of the Japanese Neo-Dada was Shinohara Ushio, who would literally attack the canvas like a boxer or a sword fighter, in public performances, or throw balls of paint about. Compared to Shinohara’s “boxing art,” the American action painters of the period were rather tame (and usually better painters, too). But the finished work was not the issue; the performance was all. It was as if Japanese artists wanted to strip off the thick crusts of Chinese, Japanese, and Western artistic influences, accumulated over many centuries, and start again with the body, with those Japanese guts and bones.

An important feature of these experiments was the degree of cooperation among artists from various disciplines. Shinohara boxed with his canvases in a building designed by Isozaki Arata, who was associated with a form of uniquely Japanese avant-garde architecture called Metabolism.9 The Metabolists, a group of young architects affiliated with the great Japanese master Tange Kenzo, had radical ideas on reshaping the modern city in a nonmonumental fashion. A bit like the artistic performances of the Neo-Dadaists, buildings and cityscapes would not reach a final form, but mutate like living organisms.

Music played an important part too. Takemitsu Toru was one of the Neo-Dadaists. Like the Metabolist architectural schemes and the action art, musical composition would be subject to chance, and the unforeseen circumstances of any given performance. John Cage, himself influenced by Asian mysticism (especially the I Ching), was a much revered figure in Tokyo. Cage’s long visit to Japan in 1962 had such an impact that Japanese called it the Keji shokku (“Cage shock”).

  1. 1

    See John Nathan’s excellent biography, Mishima, reissued in paperback by Da Capo in 2000, p. 251. 

  2. 2

    One example was the massacre of twenty-six people by members of the Japanese Red Army at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv in 1972. 

  3. 3

    Nathan, Mishima, p. 270. 

  4. 4

    Nathan, Mishima, p. 249. 

  5. 5

    The political aspects of the Japanese avant-garde are discussed in great detail in the forthcoming book by William Marotti, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Duke University Press, 2013). 

  6. 6

    Quoted in Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, edited by Alexandra Monroe (Abrams, 1994), p. 86. 

  7. 7

    The Guggenheim Museum in New York City will be showing more from the Gutai group in a show called “Gutai: Splendid Playground,” running from February 15 to May 8, 2013. 

  8. 8

    Yoshihara Jiro, founder of the Gutai group, quoted in Japanese Art after 1945, p. 91. 

  9. 9

    For a fascinating analysis of the Metabolists, see Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (Taschen, 2011), reviewed in these pages by Martin Filler, May 10, 2012. 

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