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”).


STF/AFP/Getty Images

Mishima Yukio speaking to Japanese soldiers shortly before committing suicide, Tokyo, November 25, 1970

And then there was dance. In an essay on the period, Isozaki recalled a party at his house in 1962, when the dancer Hijikata Tatsumi and the action painter Shinohara Ushio climbed onto the roof and improvised wild dances in the nude. The police intervened. And Isozaki, as the host of the party, was asked to prove that his guests had been engaging in “art,” and not “pornography.”10 Hijikata’s troupe Ankoku Butoh, meaning “Dance of Darkness,” expressed eros and death in the spirit of the Marquis de Sade and Hans Bellmer, as well as the Shinto rituals of his native region in the rural northeast. Hijikata’s first public performance was based on Mishima’s novel about homosexual love, Forbidden Colors. He went on to become a leading figure in the Japanese avant-garde.

Improvised street performances, later known as “happenings,” were not unique to Japan. They were part of a worldwide trend of spontaneity, of art that could not be bought and sold. But each place gave these events its own cultural twist. Japan has a long carnivalesque tradition of festivals and dances, mostly to do with Shinto rites of fertility, which can be wild, sexy, morbid, and often grotesque. Hijikata’s slow dances of decay and rebirth, wearing little but a strapped-on phallus, were very much in this line. So was much in the spirit of Ero, Guro, Nansensu—erotic, grotesque, nonsense—that marked a previous period of Japanese artistic and political ferment in the 1920s. The jazz-inspired poetry of Shiraishi Kazuko, often expressed in public happenings, was part of this tradition. And so were the “rituals” performed by the group Zero Jigen, from Nagoya—marching naked in the streets, or impaling themselves with pins. All this was designed to shock people out of their bourgeois complacency.

Carnival has often functioned as a form of political protest in Japanese history, a physical expression of revolt when other ways are blocked. Celebrations of sexual freedom sometimes took the place of political confrontation. This happened, for example, in the 1860s, just before the Meiji Restoration put an end to the old political order and modernized Japan along Western lines. A millenarian craze, called eijanaika, meaning “who cares”—“Who cares if we take our clothes off,” “Who cares if we have sex”—began in the Kansai region around the old capital Kyoto. Ordinary citizens took to the streets, cross-dressing or not dressed at all, dancing in a frenzy. The craze quickly spread to other parts of Japan, before ending in mob violence.

Something like this occurred in the Ero, Guro, Nansensu 1920s, and again in the early 1960s, in the narrower confines of the Japanese art scene. Much of what happened was born from political disillusion. Protests against the renewal of the US–Japan security treaty in 1960, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Tokyo, snake-dancing, chanting, fighting the riot police, had failed. The treaty was rammed through the Diet by a prime minister, Kishi Nobusuke, who had been arrested in 1945 as a war criminal.11

The art curator Alexandra Munroe, in an essay for a previous exhibition of Japanese avant-garde art, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1995, described how members of the Neo-Dada responded on the eve of the treaty’s renewal. They were in the studio of one of the artists, Yoshimura Masunobu:

The members stripped naked, some with bags tied over their heads, and danced wildly. Yoshimura attached a giant erect penis made of crushed paper bound with string to his loins, and painted his stomach with a gaping red diamond-shape of intestines—as if he had just committed harakiri—and marked the rest of his body with white arrows.12


Yoshimura Masunobu’s sculpture is on display at the current MoMA show in New York City, as are the works of other Neo-Dada artists. But the paintings and sculptures that emerged from the action of the late 1950s and early 1960s are perhaps the least interesting products of that fascinating period. Okamoto Taro, who studied in Paris in the 1930s and knew many of the Surrealists, was a hugely influential figure in the Japanese art world, not least because of his writings, but his paintings and sculptures, though distinctive, do not strike me as first rate. Other oil paintings on show at MoMA, by Shiraga Kazuo, Ay-O, Ishii Shigeo, Fukashima Hideko, or Kitadai Shozo, seem competent but are rarely outstanding. The various objects wrapped in one thousand–yen notes by Akasegawa Genpei are of Japanese art-historical interest, because they provoked the authorities into suing the artist for years on the spurious grounds of counterfeiting. Also of historical interest is the installation piece by Kudo Tetsumi of penises hanging limply from the walls, showing the sense of impotence that followed the failed political protests of 1960.

But painting, derived from Western traditions of “fine art,” or indeed the modernist versions of that same tradition, was never the most interesting aspect of modern Japanese culture. And since so much of the artistic revolt of the 1950s and 1960s was deliberately ephemeral, one can’t expect much of permanent or monumental importance. It is obviously impossible to recreate the excitement of the performances and happenings of yesteryear in a museum show. All that is left are flickering images on video screens, a few blueprints, and some photographs. The catalog of the MoMA show, rather unattractively designed, doesn’t help much either. Who would wish to wade through prose such as this: “Within the discursive network on the art of a given sociohistorical context, it is not uncommon to encounter a set of concepts that provide a pivotal hinge for various artistic praxes, but are then…” and so on.

Fortunately, a festival of independent Japanese films screened at MoMA to coincide with the avant-garde exhibition allows us to see a great deal more, including some of Hijikata’s dance performances, Mishima’s Patriotism, Terayama Shuji’s excellent short films, and even a curious little movie, entitled Cybele, directed by the American critic Donald Richie, starring members of the Zero Jigen being chastised by a dominatrix. One of the most interesting movies, from a historical point of view, is Oshima Nagisa’s record of sexual rebellion, street theater, and political revolt in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), starring Yokoo Tadanori, whose poster art was as important in the 1960s as Hijikata’s Dance of Darkness, Takemitsu’s music, and Isozaki’s architecture.

To me, the most fascinating thing about Japan at that time was the rediscovery of neglected aspects of Japanese culture, more in tune with the carnivalesque happenings: the subsoil, as it were, of Japanese tradition: the erotic side of Shintoism, the matriarchal cults of rural life, the low life of Japanese cities, the popular expressions of sex and violence that once produced the Kabuki theater—in short, the very opposite of fine art and high culture, traditional or modernist. What emerged was a celebration of the “primitive,” what Japanese call dorokusai, reeking of mud.

Highly sophisticated artists, such as Okamoto Taro, or the architect Tange Kenzo, started digging for inspiration into the prehistoric Jomon period (5000–300 BC), before culture was tamed and refined by Buddhism, Confucianism, and the Sinified aristocracy. Okinawa, like the rural northeast, was thought to have retained some of the primitive energy of premodern Japanese culture. In 1961, Okamoto wrote a book about Okinawa entitled The Forgotten Japan: Theory of Okinawan Culture. The American sculptor Isamu Noguchi encouraged this tendency during his stays in Japan. He tried to convince the Japanese that their oldest arts and crafts were more interesting, more avant-garde in spirit, than the pale imitation of modernist international artistic trends. This was not always well received. Some Japanese artists and critics regarded Noguchi as a condescending foreigner, indulging in a new form of Japonaiserie with his Jomon-inspired sculptures and his paper lanterns. Perhaps nostalgie de la boue is more convincing when it springs from the native soil.

Filmmakers, such as Imamura Shohei, began shooting their movies in rural locations in the northeast, or Okinawa, or in the slums of Tokyo and Osaka, among peasants, petty gangsters, and cheap whores. Avant-garde theater groups, such as Terayama Shuji’s Tenjo Sajiki, or Kara Juro’s Situation Theater, mixed up the rough vitality of strip shows and country fairs with ideas derived from Antonin Artaud and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Pitching their tents on riverbanks or next to Shinto shrines, they saw themselves as the spiritual heirs of the early Kabuki troupes, when theater was disreputable and associated with outcasts and prostitutes.

Moriyama Daido, Tomatsu Shomei, and other photographers stalked the red light districts around US military bases, or the burlesque theaters and bars in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, for images that reeked of mud. The now world-famous pictures of the sexual Tokyo underworld by Araki Nobuyoshi, many of them taken after 1970, are products of the same trend. Graphic artists, too, rebelled against high-minded modernism. One of the most prominent, Awazu Kiyoshi, like Hijikata a native of the northeast, described his role as a designer as that of a wandering outcast. The designer’s mission, in Awazu’s words, was “to extend the rural into the city, foreground the folklore, reawaken the past, summon back the outdated, and confront the most belated ‘rear-garde’ with the city.”

All this goes back, in spirit if not necessarily in form, to the merchant culture of the Edo Period (1603–1868) when woodblock print artists, actors, courtesans, and prostitutes formed part of an interlocking world, raffish but artistically rich and alluring. The 1960s avant-garde was just as collaborative. Some of Takemitsu’s best music was written for movies by such directors as Oshima Nagisa. The poet Shiraishi Kazuko was married to the filmmaker Shinoda Masahiro, whose scripts were written by Terayama Shuji, and posters designed by Yokoo Tadanori. The photographer Hosoe Eikoh collaborated on extraordinary books with Mishima and Hijikata, picturing the latter as a kind of rural demon in the muddy rice paddies of his native region.

Some of this—Hosoe’s photographs, posters by Yokoo—can be seen at the MoMA art show. But to my mind not nearly enough. For the exhibition demonstrates what exhibitions of Japanese modern art of the 1920s and 1930s also make clear: the Japanese excel in graphic arts, photography, architecture, drama, cinema, dance. The unashamed use of popular art and entertainment, even the embrace of commercial art, seems to bring out the best in Japanese artists, perhaps because of the long tradition of what might be called refined popular culture. Most painting looks rather wan in comparison.

When Yokoo Tadanori, bored perhaps with his huge success as a poster artist celebrating underground theater, gangster movies, and scandalous dancers, reinvented himself as a fine artist of oil paintings in 1981, after seeing the Picasso show at MoMA, he lost much of his verve. Mishima Yukio was a great admirer of Yokoo’s graphic art. Yokoo, Mishima said, revealed the dark things that lurk inside the Japanese which people prefer not to see. This led to a very lively culture, and perhaps to Mishima’s death.