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…

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