The years are passing too quickly for this no-longer-young critic. Lest you think me embittered, let me start this year in review on a high note by trumpeting the star of 2004, a grand old dame who looks as bright and new as the day she was born — the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Built in the Bauhaus style by Jin Watanabe in 1938, the wonderfully comfortable Hara marked its 25th year as a museum this past November.

This really was the Hara’s year: They scooped up Japan’s hottest photographer, Rika Noguchi, for her solo show “I Dreamt of Flying”; and had another of the top exhibitions of the last 12 months in the delightful “Joy of Life,” which spotlighted African photographers D’Okhai Ojeikere and Malick Sidibe. The Hara and its sister space, the Arata Isozaki-designed Hara ARC in Gunma, are feel-good places, home to daring curators, run by a staff that seems to really enjoy their work, and presided over by director Toshio Hara, who, with his Yohji Yamamoto suits and gold-topped walking stick, has to be one of the coolest Tokyoites who will turn 70 this year.

The Hara also premiered a new permanent installation on their 25th anniversary. “My Drawing Room,” a fun and informal mockup of Yoshitomo Nara’s studio in Germany, occupied the space at the end of the last second-floor gallery, a nook which, in a rare incidence of misjudgment for the Hara a few years ago, had hosted an installation of pornographic tripe by Nobuyoshi Araki.

Speaking of Nara, “Present,” a 1994 painting of one of his characteristic impish kids, fetched $209,600 at the Phillips Contemporary auction in New York this Nov. 11, setting a new record for the artist.

However, in his yearend market watch column, respected American dealer and market analyst Richard Polsky was downbeat about Japan’s rising art stars. At a time when the contemporary market is otherwise strong, Polsky predicted that demand for Nara and Takashi Murakami, whom he termed “a textbook example of an unproven painter whose prices got ahead of themselves,” would tumble in 2005.

Word is that Murakami privately previewed a new body of work in Tokyo this year (and this is all hush-hush and my sources insist on remaining nameless), which consisted of pictures of big-breasted young women dressed up as cartoon characters. Enough said.

Other activity from popular Japanese artists: Makoto Sasaki became simply “Sasaki,” and developed his signature red-pen heartbeat drawings into a room-filling installation of stacked sheets of heartbeat drawings. This logical and good progression gives his work more weight (literally), and was unveiled this fall at the Gallery 360; Yasumasa Morimura made a glitzy appearance at the “Takarazuku: The Land of Dreams” exhibition at the Opera City Gallery; and Yayoi Kusama had a busy year, with a lovingly-composed retrospective at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, a show at Ota Fine Arts, and the best-ever exhibition of her room-filling installations, “Kusamatrix,” which ran in the Mori Museum’s 52nd floor galleries.

Were you wondering about that set of three galleries on the Mori’s 52nd floor? Well, they are no more. Yes, even as all the hoopla about the majesty of the Mori Museum was still resounding through the art world, the Mori Building Company Ltd. quietly disenfranchised their museum directors of these spaces, and turned them into rental galleries. The first show, this fall, was paid for and dedicated to that lovable little character known as Hello Kitty.

Am I disappointed by what happened at the Mori? Yes, of course. Am I surprised? No. The image of the Mori as a gigantic world-class museum had, from the start, seemed naive to me when put into perspective. What is unquestionably gigantic is Roppongi Hills, the largest-ever private urban development project in Japan. Perched atop it, the Mori Museum’s surviving 2,000 sq. meters of exhibition space account for only about 0.5 percent of the complex’s total floor space. And, I don’t mean to harp on this but the Mori has no collection — so while it is a bit of a cut above the 1980s Japanese department store galleries, it is certainly not in the same league as the world’s great museums. And now it is slightly smaller than the Hara/ARC.

OK, I don’t want to be turned away from the place next time I show up so I’ll say some nice things. The Mori didn’t hang Christmas lights on Louise Bourgeois’s “Maman” spider, thank goodness. And “Roppongi Crossing,” their spring show, was a terrific roundup of new talent, one of the year’s best exhibitions. Let’s hope it becomes a regular event. Also brave was the decision to give a solo show to young and eclectic Tsuyoshi Ozawa, who is a real artist’s artist. Plus Mori director David Elliott and deputy director Fumio Nanjo are talented and gracious guys, and Minoru Mori’s vision has brought the world’s best contemporary art to the people of Tokyo.

Elsewhere on the scene, the embassies of Brazil and Russia joined countries such as Sweden, Belgium and Canada who have traditionally been there for their nation’s contemporary artists; the Kagu razaka Building and its trio of new galleries (Kodama, Yamamoto, Takahashi) continued to define the avant-garde; the CET04 show on Tokyo’s East Side took honors as the year’s most ambitious group show; and star curator Yuko Hasegawa and the Museum of 21st Century Art opened for business in Kanazawa, averaging 10,000 visitors a day in their first week of operations. It was a breakout year for installation artist Katsushige Nakahashi and painter Akira Yamaguchi, and the otherwise brilliant Makoto Aida embarrassed himself by screening his racist and sexist short animated film “Mutant Hanako” at the new Red Cube art space in Shinjuku.

Finally, as we enter the Year of the Cock (and I was warned against this pun) I must note that the Mori Museum also helped break down one of the taboos in Japanese art exhibitions — and that is the censorship of penises. For decades the chin-chin was a no-no, until several appendages appeared in “Happiness,” the Mori’s debut show. These were permitted to stand, and since then penises have been popping up all over the place — in photography shows mostly of course, but also in the work of conceptual artists such as Yasumasa Morimura, whose “White Darkness” showed at the Hara this fall. A large work stuffed with symbolism, it sees the artist letting it all hang out while posing beside a cow carcass in an abattoir — addressing, among other things, the oft-avoided issue of the burakumin underclass in Japan.

In 2004 we lost Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon and Theo Van Gogh. Closer to home for this writer was the departure of irreplaceable performance poet Edgar Henry, a 15 year-resident of Tokyo, who passed on in November. As we go round the sun once again, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers and offer you my best wishes for a 2005 resplendent with art and love and ever-better times.

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