Packing his trademark black Walther PPK 7.65 mm automatic, a small pistol with a mighty punch, agent 007 set foot on the island of Naoshima just one day after escaping the clutches of a powerful sociopath and his henchman.
The scene is from “The Man with the Red Tattoo,” the 2002 novel by Raymond Benson who, from 1997-2003, carried the creative baton of the James Bond franchise that has been through various hands since the death of its originator, Ian Fleming, in 1964.
In homage to the British agent, my first stop after disembarking at the Seto Inland Sea port of Miyanoura was the tiny The Man with the Red Tattoo Museum, close to the dock.
I had to adjust my eyes to the interior, bathed in a dim light suggestive of red tattoo ink. Projections of Bond film scenes, displays of movie memorabilia and data on Benson’s novels are on display, but the central exhibits focus on Sean Connery and Mie Hama, the Japanese actress who played the role of a Bond Girl named Kissy Suzuki in 1967’s “You Only Live Twice” — a title, incidentally, that Ian Fleming took from a Matsuo Basho haiku.
Here, in laid-back Naoshima, it’s one of the islanders most fervent hopes that, if a film is ever made of “The Man with the Red Tattoo,” the production people will come to the source locations in Japan and fortunes will be transformed.
I knew quite a lot about Naoshima by the time I got there. On the 40-minute ferry trip from the Shikoku city of Takamatsu which, like Naoshima, is in Kagawa Prefecture, a video commentary bordered on the rapturous, building expectations of a marine Nirvana. No mention was made of the inglorious state of affairs in the 1970s, when — as one eminent Japanese writer put it — the beautiful Inland Sea had become a “Sea of Death” due to the dumping of poisonous chemicals and industrial waste into its waters.
However, the fortunes of Naoshima — by then best-known for its waste-recycling plant as its fishing community shrivelled in the face of polluted catches — changed in 1992, precisely two decades ago, when a number of small-scale art projects were started and tracts of land were bought up by the language-learning, education and publishing-focused Benesse Corporation with the idea of using art as an instrument for island rejuvenation.
Having picked up a rental bicycle, I found the coastal road south from the port was quiet, with broad views of the Inland Sea and some islands, sandy beaches and wild dunes. After a 20-minute ride, I reached the Chichu Art Museum, a Benesse-founded gallery designed by world-famous architect Tadao Ando.
Housing paintings from Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series, the museum also boasts installations by international artists of the stature of Walter de Maria and James Turrell. There was also something vaguely familiar about the landscaping outside the museum, and the garden on its inner approach — and I realized the plantings and flowers reflected the tastes of the great French Impressionist painter when he build his “Water Lilies” garden at Giverny beside the River Seine 80 km northwest of Paris in the 1890s.
You don’t have to shell out on expensive admittance fees to see art on Naoshima. Public installations are plentiful, though you have to be alert to spot the sign pointing toward a glade, beyond which is Chinese artist Cai Gui Quang’s open-air Jacuzzi work ringed by 36 limestone rocks imported from China and instantly associated with the classic Chinese garden.
A short distance down the road, another Ando structure, Benesse House Museum, displays works by art luminaries such as Jasper John, David Hockney and Bruce Nauman. Like all the points of interest on this carefully managed island, this museum, too, commands a fine perspective of the sea.
In Benson’s secret-service novel, the ravishing Reiko Tamura briefs Bond on the island, explaining that, “they built a beautiful art museum and hotel there called Benesse House. It is one of Japan’s little treasures that not too many people know about.” Or can afford to it may be added, for such art-themed ambiences do not come cheap. Bond is told that the hotel-cum-art space was designed to incorporate “three basic geometrical shapes — a square, a circle and a triangle — in an impressive, imposing structure that faced the Inland Sea.”
I was more interested in Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin installations. I knew at least two of the works were on the island, but came across this first one by accident. A painter, performance and early installation artist who achieved some notoriety in New York in the 1960s, Kusama vanished into near-obscurity when she returned to Japan in 1973. Then in 1977, driven by the demons that have tormented her for most of her life, she checked herself into a clinic where she has lived ever since, working by day in her nearby studio. Not to minimize the “visions of self-obliteration” that afflict her, in 2008 one of her works sold at auction for a whopping $5.8 million.
The pumpkin here inspires an almost infantile elation in viewers, and it may be that the sensation of plenitude it transmits has helped its creator hold her fears in check. The artist’s yellow-and-black creation was sited at the end of a cement pier on a spit of land belonging to Benesse. Although the artwork’s reptilian-like surfaces repel some people, I found them intriguing, though I have no idea why. And though it was taking up too much of my time, I couldn’t pull myself away from it.
Eventually, however, I remounted and pedalled off southward, where the road moves inland, rejoining the coast on the eastern shoreline and down to the old fishing village of Honmura. An attractive place, the homes here are built from pine planks that have been charred to protect them against the salt air; others have touches of bengara, an iron-oxide mix that stains wood and increases its longevity.
The village is the subject of the “Honmura Art House Project,” another Benesse-inspired idea. Residents were approached and asked to make their properties available for restoration and, under the direction of specialists, to have them converted into art spaces. Villagers were encouraged to participate in the process; to become custodians of art; and to assist in creating structures consonant with Japanese traditions and aesthetics. The project seems to have given everyone, from home and shop owners to fisher folk, a new lease of life.
Many of the homes now double as cafes, galleries and souvenir shops. I stopped at Nyaoshima, a cat cafe where visitors can pet the animals (nyao being Japanese for meow). I noticed that many of the craft shops had exceptionally well-designed noren (hanging entrance curtains). It turned out that these were the work of Yoko Kano, an internationally-known, Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture-based textile artist. In 2001, she was at first invited to create noren for and with the owners of 14 private homes — now there are more than 50 in this small, detail-filled village.
Gifted novices and craftspeople are joined by professional artists in Honmura, where there are exhibition spaces that demand to be taken seriously. In one home, Hiroshi Senju’s 2006 Ishibashi (Stone Bridge) garden consists of a slab of granite sitting on a lawn. Paying visitors are invited to sit in a viewing room and contemplate the installation. On my visit, several art supplicants sat gazing at the rock with the anointed look that only the numinous, or the very accomplished artifact, can inspire.
Beside the residential structures, and small eruptions of commercialism such as the boat cruises being offered by former fishermen, extra interest can be found in Honmura’s old temples, shrines, the vestiges of a castle and the harbor quay. A stiff path up the hill above the village leads to a flat area with good views of the sea and the island’s interior — and more art installations.
Returning to Benesse House and the beach, where a fresh group of people were inspecting Kusama’s pumpkin, I tried to take the same seafront path, but this time I was stopped by a security guard. The man examined me rather like an English gamekeeper would appraise a poacher caught red-handed with his employer’s trout. Unless I wanted to return along the circular road, I had no choice I was told, but to push the machine up and over the steep hill in the noon heat.
My brush with the Benesse groundsman and subsequent exertions up the hill embittered me sufficiently to wonder whether the island was art colony or colonization? Benesse are fussy people, and their facilities are not cheap, but credit where it’s due — they have transformed, revitalized, and cleaned up the island. You won’t see a vending machine on the roadside, or a speck of garbage.
Ultimately, the good that the company has done here far outweighs the sense of inhabiting someone’s master plan. The feeling of orchestration, of directives coming from a central committee, is probably in any case a necessity, given that, with the island’s stock rising as a destination, Naoshima could get very busy hosting a growing art crowd.
Whether the lumpish boulders standing outside Naoshima’s galleries, the animal statues in front of Benesse House, the super-enlarged pumpkins, or the carefully the labeled buried hull of a fishing boat I came across on an empty beach, are art or playfulness is something that each visitor must decide. Children at least, free of the joyless habits of analysis, seem to find everything a great hoot, especially the installations that can be touched, and sometimes — like the mysterious tunnels and chambers of a 007 novel — entered and explored from the inside.
Getting there: There are regular ferries from Uno and Takamatsu to Miyanoura Port. Marine Station Naoshima has an information office, cafe and bicycle-rental counter (¥500 per day). There is an infrequent bus service around the island.