The word “feminist” has been stripped of the luster it had back in the 1970s, and few Japanese women are more aware of this than Michiko Kasahara. Widely regarded as one of Japan’s leading feminist curators, Kasahara was responsible for groundbreaking exhibitions such as “Gender: Beyond Memory” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 1996.

Her latest, and she says, best, group exhibition is called “Life, Actually.” The wide-ranging roundup features drawings, paintings, photography, video and installations by 10 female Japanese artists ranging in age from their mid-20s to mid-60s, and is now showing at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (MoT) in Kiba, way out on Tokyo’s eastern flank.

“I am a feminist, even a radical feminist, and I don’t mind saying so,” Kasahara told me in an interview last week. “But the Japanese mass media have unfavorably colored the words ‘gender’ and ‘feminism,’ so I hesitate to use them. About the definition of feminism, here in Japan if you talk to 10 feminists, you will find 10 different ‘feminisms.’ Feminism is not a dogma like Marxism; being a feminist means finding a way to survive in a positive way.”

Although she is talented and personable, the Japanese media has not always been receptive to Kasahara’s message — the more reactionary have gone so far as to term feminism a Western construct and a threat to the Japanese way of life. Although “Life Actually” is far from scandalous by Western standards, it does present a critical examination of the path women are expected to follow, from schoolgirl to housewife and mother.

The show kicks off with photographic works by Tomoko Sawada, which are the product of an incredible investment of time and energy. In the past, Sawada has elevated costume play to an art, using makeup, dress and facial expressions to assume different characters in singles club ads and job applications. In her new “School Days” series we see the chameleon-like woman playing all the students (and the teacher) in a set of formal class portraits. Each character is just a little different from the others. Sawada does a good job of mocking the slight variations of hairstyle and accessories permitted Japanese schoolgirls (and boys) in a system rigged to foster conformity.

Moving through the exhibition, Leiko Ikemura’s dream-like pastel figure paintings are followed by Yoshiko Shimada’s public confession installation, “Family Secrets,” which some may recall from the “Borderline Cases” show last summer at the A.R.T Gallery in Ebisu. Also brought here from that exhibition is Mako Idemitsu’s unsettling video installation “The Past Ahead,” which superimposes home movies shot during her childhood onto archival World War II footage.

The 10 big, colorful paintings by Noboko Watabiki hold the wall well — moody shapes hinting at human or animal forms which with a childlike voice, speak of a not uncomfortable solitude. Something of the opposite atmosphere awaits in the large MoT atrium, where Hiroko Ichihara has plastered the walls with large black-on-white monotype banners featuring musings on life and love affairs. Also here from Ichihara is a block-like structure covered with hundreds of sketches and scribbled personal notes, dating back to her school days.

The surreal work of Tomoko Konoike may be the best in the show. This is a complexly linked mixed media installation consisting mainly of paintings and objets. A kind of mirror-ball projector rotates a field of knives in a room with a 7-meter-wide multipanel canvas on one wall. In the far corner, a soft sculpture chair sits beside a video monitor perched on the floor, screening a short hand-drawn animation film that follows a winter day-in-the-life of an amorphous cartoon character, who meets a friend, skates and has fun, and cries a single tear when the friend leaves.

I enjoyed Hiroko Okada’s “Singin’ in the Pain,” a video projection in which the artist plays a housewife dancing wildly through a shopping neighborhood, a look of manic joy stitched on her face. She grabs an apple, takes a bite, then gives it to a homeless man lying on a piece of cardboard. She rampages, all the while swinging a plastic umbrella (a la “Singing in the Rain”). In the last scene, this dancer trapped in a housewife’s life returns home, cleans her kitchen, twirls the umbrella like a majorette with baton, then thrusts it through her abdomen. It shoots out her back, splattering the camera lens with blood.

Says Kasahara: “The number of women who are using antidepressants or have become alcoholic, so-called ‘kitchen drinkers,’ is increasing in Japan. These are women living an apparently happy everyday life; they are married, having children, being housewives, doing what was expected of them, but they are in fact going through crises of identity.”

Impossible to describe properly is the moaning, towering and throbbing red-light “orgazmatron” by Akiko Mizoguchi titled “O.I.C,” a room-filling, floor-rumbling installation titled “My lover shoots his load inside me. The sperm flows in my body. It is the moment when I feel most alive.”

The exhibition closes with a set of black-and-white photographic portraits by Yuki Onodera. These are easy on the eyes, taking the appearance of silhouettes, the subjects faintly discernible, in black, soft-edges dissolving into the white and gray background.

Putting together a good contemporary art group show is something like making a good salad — all the ingredients must be fresh and complement one another well. Creating a theme is like composing a symphony — if all the instruments hit the same notes together at the same time, the thing simply plods along, insulting the keenness of our sensitivities. “Life, Actually” ultimately succeeds because its different elements — quiet moments, eerie moments, moments of joy and pain, dark areas and explosions of light and color — work together to create a whole, which, forgive the cliche, is greater than the sum of its parts.

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