Hiroshi Hamaya: images of an inner war

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

Most active in the mid-20th century, the photographer Hiroshi Hamaya (1915-99) is best known for his folkloric images of rural life in Niigata Prefecture — images that some consider to be symbolic of his passive resistance to militarism, but for more critical voices are advocacy of a retrograde cultural essentialism.

These issues aside, as historical documents and prime examples of monochrome film photography, Hamaya’s work is invaluable. To commemorate his posthumous 100th birthday, the Setagaya Museum of Art is holding a substantial restrospective, starting in the 1930s and ending in the ’80s.

“Boys Singing Songs to Drive Evil Birds Away,” taken in 1940 and therefore preternaturally loaded with surplus meaning, has become an internationally recognized iconic image of Japanese photography, in part due to its inclusion in Edward Steichen’s 1955 anti-nuclear humanist exhibition “Family of Man.” The night photo with an island of light illuminating a line of boys tramping through deep snow manages to be both hopeful and foreboding at the same time. Hamaya’s day job at that time, like all other professional Japanese photographers who wanted to continue working during World War II, was to contribute to the war effort by producing propaganda.

He photographed tanks and war planes for “Front,” the uncomfortably beautiful magazine promoting the Japanese military, and was initially caught up in the excitement and purpose of the Empire of Japan before becoming disillusioned and finding himself concentrating on the portrayal of traditional communities battling the elements along the coast of the Japan Sea and in snow-bound villages of the northeast.

Hamaya’s retreat from war resulted in a career that can be seen as one of the most powerful photographic eulogies to the idea of Japaneseness. Post hoc judgement of his moral compass, however, is divided. His legacy has been claimed as evidence of the essentially wholesome nature of Japanese culture, or alternatively, as writer Ian Buruma has put it, “chauvinistic ethnography” and a form of internal cultural colonialism.

Despite the playfulness of Hamaya’s works, he became increasingly misanthropic, and this is partly reflected in how women appear in his images. His pre-war Tokyo street photography — less well-known than his “Ura Nihon” (“Japan’s Back Coast”) and “Yukiguni” (“Snow Country”) series — unashamedly delights in the flaneur, capturing cabaret girls, partly undressed and glamorously lit like Hollywood stars, or bob-cut moga (modern girls) and kissing couples caught in the reflected glow of neon signs. It’s the gaze of a young man with a lust for life, the city and subculture. These earlier photos are stylish and brash compared with the images taken during the American Occupation, which sometimes seem furtive and seedy. Here, Hamaya does not so much express his own sexual desire as observe it with moral ambivalence — the cabaret performers are now “pan-pan” girls (the street prostitutes who made a living by hanging around the GIs), and what was once joy in cosmopolitanism and modernity appears to have turned into a suspicion of foreignness.

Women in the “Ura Nihon” and “Yukiguni” series, which were published in the 1950s, are almost all portrayed non-sexually. They are either bundled in thick clothing against the cold, covered in mud from working in the fields, or sitting with their families around hibachi (traditional heaters) as dedicated mothers and wives. As the two series progress through time, female faces appear less and less. In photos from the ’40s, we find close ups of facial expressions, while in most later images women are masked, caught as they look away from the camera or merely distant figures in the landscape.

Hamaya’s work, whatever the tenor or subject, is consistently powerful. The layout and display of the exhibition is extremely neutral — sober frames in a single row with no fancy Christian Boltanski-esque lighting — and Hamaya’s images are gripping from beginning to end. Compared to an exhibition like the Deutsche Bank collection at the Hara Museum, which also opened last month in Tokyo, these medium-sized black-and-white archive prints may seem staid or orthodox; perhaps not immediately appealing to generations that are used to the brightness of backlit screens, or opponents to the idea of a fixed canon of masters and masterpieces. But there are compelling reasons why this exhibition is worth seeing.

Apart from the formal qualities of the artistry, Hamaya reveals so much about Japan besides the narrative he intentionally sought to construct. We can see the playing out of a conflict with modernity and otherness, the ebb and flow of licentiousness and chastity, and behind the facade of realism is a surreal and absurdist gaze.

On top of this is the curious parallel of Hamaya’s documentation of the extensive and violent 1960 Anpo protests and today’s demonstrations against the Abe government. The failure of the Anpo protests to alter the government’s course over the renewal of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the U.S. resulted in the series “A Record of Rage and Grief” and great bitterness on Hamaya’s part.

He must be turning in his grave right now.

“Hiroshi Hamaya: Photographs 1930s-1960s” at the Setagaya Art Museum runs until Nov. 15; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon.