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Despite oft-heard subversive remarks to the contrary, the Japanese have a very highly-developed sense of humor — it’s just different, that’s all. While Westerners are baffled by TV comedy shows here, or — at a higher level — traditional kyogen stage performances, Japanese will blink through a Monty Python show wondering why on Earth we find it so funny.

Well, it’s all about language and how it tickles nerve endings in a way that goes beyond mere fluency to something else that must be absorbed by exposure to the broader culture. No wonder Charlie Chaplin, or our present-day Mr. Bean, are well-appreciated here — they touch a universal funny bone with gestures and expressions while hardly ever speaking.

Laughter is a reaction to something funny, while a smile can mean just contentment — or be an effective defense mechanism. Our sense of humor is nature’s palliative for the horrors that life can present. Where would we be without parody, satire and cartoons to ridicule bothersome forces such as big government and bureaucracy?

The new exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, “The Smile in Japanese Art,” either depicts the smile in art displayed, or inspires a chuckle or two from the viewer. This is certainly a refreshing subject on which to hang a show, and apart from revealing a brilliant choice of great and mostly little-known objects, it’s theme will also help alleviate for an hour or two the grim realities of living in Tokyo — You’ll certainly need to smile trying to find the place through the Byzantine labyrinth of escalators and elevators in Mori Tower.

The first of five sections, “Archaic Smile,” shows a selection of Jomon Period dogu, terra-cotta representations of humans and animals dating from 3000-300 B.C. that might have been toys or religious items, and sixth-century haniwa sculptures, models of humans and animals that adorned the huge burial mounds of the Kofun Period.

The dogu do not particularly seem to be smiling but nevertheless show expressions that are amusing to modern eyes. The haniwa human figures on the other hand are definitely smiling or laughing — this act may have been believed to have the power of warding off evil or uninvited invaders. Figures of dogs, (one with a bell-collar) and horses equipped with saddles and reins, capture the “cute” attributes of these domesticated animals that, then as now, would have raised a smile.

The second section, “The Enigmatic Smile,” unusually juxtaposes the mysterious smiles of characters from Zen lore with those of genre images. Two 17th-century screen paintings depict the erotically-tinged delights of the pleasure-quarters and a cherry blossom viewing picnic.

The smiles here are those of dalliance between the sexes, employed together with the eyes in subtle communications of romantic pursuit. An extraordinary painting by the Edo-Period eccentric Soga Shohaku (1730-1781), “Beauty,” (1765) shows a very different smile — that of madness. A barefoot woman (with toenails bizarrely tinted blue) is standing among riverside grasses clenching a shredded letter between her upturned lips. A love letter perhaps? We cannot see for sure but from her unkempt appearance and crazed expression we can imagine her as the protagonist in a tragic tale.

The paintings of Zen subjects were done by monks, or at least by artists who practiced Zen meditation and disciplines, and in these the smiles are indeed enigmatic. As with parables in the West, the lofty ideals of Zen were often expressed in humorous form to make them more accessible to ordinary folk. Legendary figures such as the inseparable Tang-Dynasty Chinese monks Hanshan and Shide (known as Kanzan and Jittoku in Japan), are shown laughing more to convey their delight at having achieved enlightenment than at anything more prosaic.

The section “Scenes of Laughter” is comprised mainly of genre scenes and includes a section of the 12th-century “Yamai no Soshi” hand scroll depicting diseases and deformities. Here laughter is shown in a completely different light — that of the cruel expressions of children mercilessly taunting a dwarf in the street. It is their laughter, not ours, yet it conveys the profound Buddhist belief that suffering is an inevitability to be transcended, and was most likely commissioned by the retiring Emperor Goshirakawa as an offering to the Rengeouin Temple in Kyoto.

Another hand scroll painted by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889) shows a dynamic farting contest induced by eating boiled yams. (Don’t try this at home). Narrative hand scrolls are inevitably too long to display in a showcase and it is irritating to see only segments displayed in most museum exhibitions. Commendably, curator Mami Hirose has installed a scrolling video display with English subtitles so that the story can be followed from beginning to spectacular climax.

Kyosai is justly famous for his highly eccentric and energetic prints and paintings but you can sense a certain satire in this scroll as it dates from a few months before the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and hints at its decay.

In the section “Animals and Humor,” several paintings of tigers portray them reduced from their terrifying role to appear as anxious, neurotic and rather ridiculous creatures. We can only presume that while animals enjoy playing — at least while young — they are unlikely to have a sense of humor and so the funny side is seen by depicting them as cute, absurd, or in human guise. A painting by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795) reveals a pair of coupling monkeys balanced precariously on a snowy branch, the bottom partner hanging onto a twig and showing a face crossed between ecstasy and concern. In a rarely-seen ink painting by Ito Jakuchu (1715-1800), mice take on human activities, pouring sake and greeting guests at a wedding feast.

The last section, “The Laughter of the Gods,” is infused with the spirit of Zen in depicting profound subjects in humorously. The Rinzai Sect patriarch, Hakuin (1685-1768), is well represented with his pictures of Hotei, the “Happy Buddha,” as a kindly grandfather and his famous images of the Kannon Bodhisattva, looking for all the world like the stereotypical Jewish mother watching over her children. The gods are literally brought down to earth in a hand scroll by Chobunsai Eishi (1756-1829) showing the deities of good fortune, Ebisu, Daikoku and Fukurokuju in the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters, feasting and cavorting with those most professional of courtesans.

Finally, a selection of naive sculptures by Enku (1632-1695) and Mokujiki (1718-1810), whose works were recently seen at the “Shaping Faith” exhibition in Ueno, humanize classic saints and deities with cheering smiles.

This is an exhibition that aims to delight rather than challenge the viewer while at the same time revealing many superb artworks that have never been seen in public before. Some items will be changed later next month providing an excellent reason to revisit — by which time you will have learned which elevator to get in without having to ask at least three attendants.

See related stories:
Funny and dark, the Mori laughs
Rejecting kawaii culture

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