Culture

Japonismes 2018 seeks to break down cultural stereotypes

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

A stupendous full autumn moon, bright orange and fat, flashes intermittently between the nondescript high-rise flats and offices on the drive to Charles de Gaulle Airport. It’s an apt and beautiful reminder of one of the events that we, a group of Tokyo-based editors and writers, were invited to see earlier in the week at Japonismes 2018: Souls in Resonance. It was a theater production of “Tsukimi Zato” (“Moon-viewing Blind Man”), starring veteran kyogen performer Mansaku Nomura, wherein a townie from upper Kyoto out for a stroll in the countryside bumps into a gentle old blind man. The two characters merrily share sake and poems together but, after parting, the slightly drunk younger man doubles back and deliberately bumps into the blind man as a practical joke and roughly pushes him over. The punchline of the play is that the blind man, as he makes his way home, wonders sadly how there can be such different people in the world, not realizing that it was the same person.

Kyogen performers (from left) Mansai, Mansaku and Yuki Nomura
Kyogen performers (from left) Mansai, Mansaku and Yuki Nomura | JOHN L. TRAN

The mood in our minivan is one of quiet satisfaction tinged with longing. The week in Paris has been full of extraordinary sights, sounds and tastes, and now it’s time to get back to an ordinary life in Japan. We’ve had our fun and are ready to face soul-crushing commutes, trying not to nod off in meetings and thinking of sleep as a hobby.

When our fixer informs us that typhoon Trami is expected to hit Tokyo at our scheduled time of arrival and that our flight has been canceled, the mood instantly turns to out-and-out joy. It appears that we have another night with creative, esoteric, beautiful, philosophical “Japonisme” before going back to Japan, which is already figuratively drumming its fingers on the kitchen table wondering where we’ve been all night.

This festival of Japanese culture, which marks the 160th anniversary of Franco-Japanese diplomatic relations, was only finalized two years ago. At an informal lunch, Korehito Masuda, director general of the festival, told us that this relatively short time frame inevitably had an impact on the choice of events.

“There was a certain amount of chance as to what we could include,” Masuda said, somewhat candidly.

Another issue is that actor Masahiko Tsugawa, a major figure in Japanese cinema and a driving force behind the development of the festival, passed away in early August, a few weeks after Japonismes 2018 had started.

At a Tokyo news conference announcing the actor’s death, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged that Japonismes 2018 “would have been inconceivable without Mr. Tsugawa. It is truly thanks to his passion that we were able to hold such a grand event.”

An installation view of Shingo Katori
An installation view of Shingo Katori’s first solo exhibition, ‘Nakama des Arts.’ | JOHN L. TRAN

Befitting the legacy of an actor whose filmography stretched from appearing in Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954) to playing a role in “Ultraman Ginga Theater Special: Ultra Monster Hero Battle Royale!” (2014), Japonismes 2018 aims to present a broad spectrum of cultures and forego the temptation to present a monolithic image of Japan as a completely coherent and unified society.

Along with the golden oldies of tea ceremony, taiko drumming, noh theater, ikebana and ukiyo-e, the anime and manga continuum is represented in the program through musical extravaganzas such as “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon,” the video game character-based “Touken Ranbu: the Musical” and turquoise-haired virtual idol character Hatsune Miku’s “Expo 2018 Europe.”

If the festival were only made up of these two branches of culture — the traditional and Cool Japan variety — it would have been business as usual, as they already have a successful track record of representing Japan abroad through the economics-driven outlook of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Japonisme 2018, however, is under the purview of a fairly complex array of numerous agencies and governmental bodies, including the Japan Foundation, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan Tourism Agency and the Finance Ministry. If the combination of these different bodies has resulted, intentionally or not, in a greater diversity of events, that’s not such a bad thing.

Masuda’s overall vision for the festival in presenting a more diverse range of cultural events was to challenge already established cultural icons that have come to represent Japan abroad.

“I hope that people coming to Japonismes 2018 will experience these unknown facets of our culture and that we can break down stereotypes,” Masuda is quoted as saying on the official government public relations website. The festival’s inclusion of an extensive program of Japanese cinema, an exhibition on art brut, culinary workshops, sake tastings, a substantial program of contemporary theater and dance, and, to some extent, an art exhibition by pop celebrity Shingo Katori of SMAP fame certainly helps with this.

Shingo Katori poses for a portrait.
Shingo Katori poses for a portrait.

While chatting to a representative of the Japan Foundation in the lobby of the Chaillot National Theater before attending a performance of Hideki Noda’s “In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom,” I asked what she considered to be the ultimate goal of her work.

“We don’t necessarily like the phrase ‘soft power,’ we want culture to be pursued as a virtue in itself,” she said, referring, I assumed, to the policy of reducing culture to being a vehicle for developing the economy through tourism and trade deals.

“We don’t want people to think of us as monsters, and we hope that the Japanese passport will allow us to travel freely to as many different countries as possible,” she added, somewhat out of the blue, but which on reflection made sense considering Japan’s historical policy of isolationism.

Interestingly, the play we were about to see, Noda’s 1989 revisionist retelling of a Japan origin story via an adaptation of a short story by Ango Sakaguchi, regrets the demise of an indigenous population of unsocialized monsters, or oni, as they are sacrificed through the machinations and politics of an aristocratic organizing structure (as far as I could tell).

Hideki Noda
Hideki Noda’s ‘In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom’ | NATHALIE VU-DINH

The frenetic pantomime action, an overly saccharine performance by the young male lead and clever fast-paced wordplay that could not be successfully translated in French subtitles didn’t receive an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the audience, whose applause at the end was respectful rather than effusive.

The imagery of the production seemed to play up Japanese cultural tropes — cherry blossoms, folk mythology, swordplay, the pomp of the Imperial court — but it was only after the show when I was able to talk to Noda (who I had first seen perform in London in the 1990s when he had absolutely rocked the British theater world) that I understood that the play was intended to be social criticism.

“I don’t have any issues with the Imperial family now but when I wrote ‘In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom,’ it was still the Showa Era (the reign of Emperor Hirohito),” Noda said. “In reviving the play (in contemporary times), I consider it to be a comment on authoritarianism in general, which is becoming more popular around the world.”

Two very different theater productions we had seen previously in the week contrasted markedly with Noda’s energetic show. The previously mentioned kyogen production featured the 87-year-old Mansaku Nomura, one of Japan’s Living National Treasures. Physical movements in this piece were, naturally, slower and more subtle. The deliberation put into every step and utterance was palpable, and while Noda’s modern production suffered from being somewhat mannered even though its aim was to come across as being carefree, the traditional theater put the artifice front and center.

“Tsukimi Zato” was performed by Mansaku Nomura. | ©KOS-CREA / COURTESY OF THE JAPAN FOUNDATION

The second part of Mansaku no Kai Kyogen Company’s performance that night, which featured a set designed by contemporary art photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, was the Shinto ritual “Sambaso” — the part of a noh performance that acts as a prayer for a good harvest. Noh being what it is, not everyone could make it to the end without dozing off and it’s probably fair to say that the audience was more immediately appreciative of the easier-to-understand “Tsukimi Zato” than the highly stylized ritual that is noh.

Kuro Tanino
Kuro Tanino’s ‘Avidya: The Ignorance Inn’ | ©YURINA NIIHARA / COURTESY OF THE JAPAN FOUNDATION

The audience’s reaction to “Avidya: The Ignorance Inn,” a piece by playwright Kuro Tanino that was first performed in 2015 and is set in the present day, also veered toward puzzlement rather than outright enthusiasm. In the case of this allegorical tale of an isolated rundown Showa Era onsen, odd pacing, uncomfortable shifts between comedy, pathos and Grand Guignol, and a less than charismatic performance by the younger of the male leads made for a challenging, but uneven dramatic experience. On top of that was the gay lust of a simpleton and a dwarf, full-frontal nudity, and simulated sex with a puppet modeled on somatosensory mapping but with an oversize penis. This may have been too much for the opening night audience, who seemed to be astonished but not fully on board with the playwright’s vision. When the cast, who had given their all, bravely smiled while taking their bows to somewhat hesitant applause, a Japanese journalist sitting next to me said, “What was that about?”

Gennevilliers Theater Director Daniel Jeanneteau poses alongside playwright Kuro Tanino.
Gennevilliers Theater Director Daniel Jeanneteau poses alongside playwright Kuro Tanino. | JOHN L. TRAN

Taken as a drama with its roots in the theater of the absurd and the early 20th-century Japanese avant-garde aesthetic of ero-guro-nansensu (erotic-grotesque-nonsense), the play is meant to be unsettling and provocative, though more optimistic about the possibility of human connection than the work than European and American drama in the existentialist vein. In an interview after the show, Tanino defended the pacing of the play, which effectively frustrates the audience from merely enjoying the piece as a smooth-running comedy spectacle.

Asked about the decision to host “Avidya: The Inn of Ignorance,” Gennevilliers Theater Director Daniel Jeanneteau spoke energetically about the theater’s function as an incubator of liberal and cosmopolitan culture in an area of Paris that has a significant immigrant population.

“There are people in the local population who’ve never seen a member of the opposite sex naked,” Jeanneteau said. “I think it’s a beautiful and powerful moment, for example, when we see one of the female characters face the audience in a very natural way. … She is not sexualized or objectified, she is just there being herself.”

A visitor examines artworks in the
A visitor examines artworks in the ‘Jakuchu: The Colorful Realm of Living Beings’ exhibition. | JOHN L. TRAN

In the visual arts, fans of the esoteric Ito Jakuchu will be happy to know that the Edo Period painter’s first exhibition in France has been a hit. Rather than presenting Jakuchu as an eccentric who mixed accurate observation with fanciful imaginings, as has been the case in previous exhibitions in Japan and the United States, “Jakuchu: The Colorful Realm of Living Beings” emphasizes the artist’s devotion to Buddhism. It is comprised mostly of hanging scrolls featuring birds and flowers, but also includes three paintings of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, Buddha Sakyamuni and Bodhisattva Manjushri on loan from the Shokokuji temple in Kyoto. With lighting only in alcoves containing individual works, the medium-sized exhibition room (there are none of the larger folding screen works, which would have required a much larger venue) is purposefully dark, allowing a better appreciation of Jakuchu’s use of color, and also promoting an intimate relationship to the work.

The exhibition of Japanese art brut at the Halles St-Pierre, a converted 19th-century food market that specializes in naive, folk and outsider art (the English language version of art brut), features paintings, drawings and sculpture by autodidacts — that is to say, people who have not had any formal art training, and who did not necessarily produce work with the intention of publicly exhibiting it. With the art world still tugging its goatee over neo-Dadaism and paying top dollar for it, the implicit lack of pretentiousness of the “Exposition Art Brut Japonais II” is a tonic for the jaded and a visual feast untouched by the invisible hand of market forces.

A painting that forms part of Shingo Katori
A painting that forms part of Shingo Katori’s ‘Nakama des Arts’ exhibition. | LIE.ARIGATO

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of former SMAP member Shingo Katori’s first solo show in France, which was privileged with a space in the Louvre. Katori is also an autodidact, but his work did not compare well with the unselfconscious absorption and complete lack of affectation of the pieces in the art brut show.

The opening film of the 100 years of Japanese Cinema at the Cinematheque Francaise was a screening of the Taisho Period samurai drama “Orochi” (1925). Introduced by the program’s selection committee as one of the progenitors of jidaigeki (period drama), the silent film was accompanied with a live musical performance and superb narration by Raiko Sakamoto. The story of the self-righteous Heisaburo Kurotami, who goes from romantically smitten samurai to abusive stalker, gang enforcer and spree killer, thence to be condemned to death after he surrenders to the police in a crucial moment of self-doubt, was wildly applauded by a full house of cinemagoers.

A still from
A still from ‘Orochi,’ which has been included as part of the 100 Years of Japanese Cinema program. | ‘OROCHI’ ©MATSUDA FILM PRODUCTIONS

As an action movie, “Orochi” was both accessible and fun, but the selection committee had chosen it for more than its entertainment value. Kohei Ando, a professor emeritus at Waseda University and Japanese member of the selection committee, was keen to impart to journalists at the press briefing for the program that Japanese culture and society are difficult to understand. The dichotomy of “yes” and “no,” for example, were foreign concepts, he said, and the Japanese had the more nuanced “aimai,” although he conceded that the French had a version of this, which is “ambiguite.”

I thought I detected the slightest trace of a smile on the faces of the two French members of the panel at this point, who, for their part, said that the deliberations over which films should be included in the program had been intense. Ando had insisted that the essential soul and spirit of Japanese culture had to be communicated through a canon of not-to-be missed films. They, on the other hand, had wanted to introduce lesser-known films that would be interesting for French cinephiles to discover for the first time.

“Orochi” was exemplary in this respect, and of fulfilling the remit of the Japonisme 2018 festival in general, which is to be a platform for different Japanese voices, rather than to simplify the image of Japan in France.

For more information on Japonismes 2018: Souls in Resonance, visit japonismes.org/en.