After Japan’s defeat in World II, its art world fell into the same flux as the rest of the society, as the rules and values that had governed it for decades suddenly vanished. Styles and movements once censored and banned, from Soviet-style socialist realism to surrealism, were now permitted and even encouraged by the U.S.-led Occupation. Traditionalists had a home in the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (aka Nitten), which had been held under various names since 1907, with government sponsorship, but artists influenced by fresh (and not so fresh) currents from the West needed a new venue. In 1949 Hideo Kaido, a former surrealist painter turned newspaperman for the Yomiuri Shimbun, supplied it with the Yomiuri Independent, an annual exhibition open to all artists, in contrast to the strictly curated Nitten.

MONEY, TRAINS AND GUILLOTINES: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan, by William Marotti. Duke University Press, 2013, 464 pp., $25.95 (paperback)

In the decade and a half until its final edition in 1963, this event became a refuge for avant-garde artists of the extremer sort that the Nitten panjandrums disdained, but whose innovations and provocation in everything from gallery installations to performance art paved the way for the modernism of the succeeding decades.

In his study of this brief flowering and its aftermath, William Marotti explicates the social and political context of the Yomiuri Independent avant-garde, starting with the prewar period of repression and continuing to the late 1960s and beyond, when Japanese society as a whole became swept by the era’s upheavals and the censors found themselves fighting a rear-guard action that still continues.

His focus, however, is on one artist, Genpei Akasegawa, who was indicted in November 1965, together with two printers, for making copies of ¥1,000 bills as an artistic statement and anti-authoritarian gesture.

In the subsequent trial, Akasegawa and his lawyers insisted that the bills, which were printed in monochrome to resemble currency on one side only, were intended as art, not counterfeits, but he was found guilty of violating the law against making mozo (that is, imitations) of legal tender and, after his appeals were exhausted, was handed a suspended sentence in 1969.

Though perhaps a minor episode in Japan’s long history of censorship, especially compared with prewar cases of torture and imprisonment for leftist cultural and political figures, Akasegawa’s legal struggles illuminate broader social and cultural trends, as do his artistic concerns.

Marotti’s exposition and analysis of this story is not chronological, though he considerately supplies a detailed chronology for reference. Instead, he organizes the book by broader themes, including the evolution of the Yomiuri Independent and the rise of the postwar avant-garde, while rather confusingly skipping back and forth in his main character’s timeline and saying little about his life and career after his trial ended.

Also, given that the book began as the author’s Ph.D. thesis, it’s hardly surprising to find turgid patches of French-influenced theorizing, as well as strained arguing that Akasegawa’s case is emblematic of the postwar state’s suppression of “obscenity,” though how funny money equates with the books, comics and movies prosecuted for endangering public morals is never quite made clear.

Nonetheless, the book offers a remarkably detailed and vivid view of the activities of Akasegawa and his circle, culminating with his participation in Hi-Red Center. This trio of like-minded artists — Akasegawa, Natsuyuki Nakanishi and Jiro Takamatsu — created works, such as a 1962 performance on Yamanote Line trains and platforms with knotted black cords and globule-like objets d’art, delivered in salaryman suits and white-face, verging on the Dada-esque absurd. At the same time, they enigmatically expressed a spirit of rebellion and protest (that later spread through an entire generation, however superficially or temporarily) against a state-encouraged conformity and passivity. That is, their agenda extended beyond art world games to encompass a social critique.

Akasegawa explained that agenda in a 1965 essay defending his act of “desecrating” his country’s currency. “The nature of art is at base something that refuses everydayness, something opposed to the everyday,” he wrote. It is, he continued, opposed to authority that “secretes the mucus of everydayness into this everyday life.” His ¥1,000 notes were intended to disrupt the consciousness that unquestioningly accepts the “reality” of money on the government’s authority.

The effectiveness of this disruption has been practically negligible; ¥1,000 bills still circulate with few if any existential qualms about their worth. Also, much of the work of Akasegawa and his colleagues from the early 1960s now exists only in photographs and the fading memories of those who made and saw them. Yet art, as Akasegawa and his colleagues proved by both word and example, can have an impact that survives and spreads beyond its initial intent.

As hinted at vaguely in the book, Akasegawa persisted beyond his first brush with notoriety, becoming a prolific writer of fiction and essays while continuing to work as an artist, if not one so dedicated to tweaking the nose of authority.

One tour through Japan’s justice system in which guilty verdicts follow indictments like sunshine after summer showers would be enough for anyone.

Mark Schilling is the senior film reviewer for The Japan Times and the Japan correspondent for Variety.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.