Art

Japan's Showa flash flood of photography

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

The streets are dark. The stores are closed. The roller-shutters — rusty, creaky, stained — are pulled down. The paint on boards and buildings is peeling. Humans are largely absent. Only a few scattered forlorn figures are visible. In the middle of an empty road, a little girl, dressed in black and dishevelled. She is walking toward the camera, a ghostly, chilling sight.

The scene takes place in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. But this is not the Yokosuka you may know: It is that of photographer Miyako Ishiuchi.

Born in Gunma Prefecture in 1947, Ishiuchi spent most of her childhood in the coastal city, home to a large U.S. military base since the end of World War II. She hated the place, alienated by its red-light district and much else. It is an understatement to say she was happy to leave.

Some good nevertheless came out of that experience. After studying weaving and dyeing at Tama Art University in the early 1970s, Ishiuchi turned to photography, almost by chance. Looking for a subject matter, she decided to revisit the locations of her youth that she associated with negative memories. It was an inspired choice: The pictures she took became “Yokosuka Story” (1976-77), one of her first solo shows. Later published in book format, the project launched her career.

Yasumasa Morimura’s 'Self-portrait (Actress): After Hara Setsuko' (1996) | YOKOHAMA MUSEUM OF ART, DONATED BY YASUMASA MORIMURA © YASUMASA MORIMURA
Yasumasa Morimura’s ‘Self-portrait (Actress): After Hara Setsuko’ (1996) | YOKOHAMA MUSEUM OF ART, DONATED BY YASUMASA MORIMURA © YASUMASA MORIMURA

Sixteen of Ishiuchi’s Yokosuka photographs have been included in a comprehensive survey of Japanese photography from the Showa Era (1926-89), which is on view at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, until March 22, 2020. The brainchild of Eriko Kimura, a curator at the Yokohama Museum of Art, the show, titled “Hanran,” which means “flood” or “deluge,” presents more than 200 pictures from 28 photographers. It is the largest such exhibition ever held in Canada.

The dread that permeates Ishiuchi’s “Yokosuka Story” is miles away from the world of Ihei Kimura (1901-74), a giant of 20th-century Japanese photography. Born in Tokyo, Kimura was an autodidact who learned by doing. He was also a prolific artist who was active in various photography clubs and one who helped launch several influential magazines. The thematic breadth of his work, which is well represented by 20 images in the show, reveals a curious and agile mind: slick 1930s portraits of painters, disorderly clothing stalls on urban sidewalks, damp alleyways in postwar Shibuya. In the early 1950s, Kimura began documenting life in Akita Prefecture, on the snowy northwest coast of Japan. This project, which lasted almost 20 years, is widely considered his masterpiece.

Hiromi Tsuchida, best-known for his photographic examination of the legacy of the A-bomb in Hiroshima, once commented that, until the end of the Showa Era, it was monochrome photography, not color, that was the medium of choice for those who wanted to “show a serious reality.” “Hanran” sticks to that mantra closely. All but two of the pictures in the show are in black in white.

One that is not is by Yasumasa Morimura. When it appears, it grabs the viewer’s attention immediately. The large scene — it takes an entire wall — appears familiar, warm and welcoming. But something is not quite right: The cheekbones of the woman in its centre are too angular, the veins on her left forearm too protruding, her hands too masculine. It takes a few seconds to realize this is not actress Setsuko Hara on the set of “Tokyo Story,” director Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, but one of Morimura’s self-portrait impersonations.

Morimura was born in Osaka, where he continues to live and work. He came to prominence in the late 1980s and early ’90s, as the Showa Era was transitioning to the Heisei Era (1989-2019), by appropriating and reinterpreting familiar images from the collective memory of Japan and the West. He used photo-editing software, for instance, to literally merge his gaze with that of Einstein and the “Mona Lisa.” On other occasions, he relied on elaborate props, costumes and makeup to impersonate Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. Another of his favorite artistic devices consists of inserting himself into the decor of a masterpiece, such as Manet’s “Olympia” or Velasquez’s “Las Meninas.” The resulting images, always mildly destabilizing, force the viewer to consider how works of art are received, interpreted and remembered. “Self-portrait (Actress): After Hara Setsuko” (1996) is representative of Morimura’s approach.

Ryukichi Shibuya’s 'Ginza Photomontage' (undated) | YOKOHAMA MUSEUM OF ART
Ryukichi Shibuya’s ‘Ginza Photomontage’ (undated) | YOKOHAMA MUSEUM OF ART

The reign of Emperor Hirohito was dramatic. The manner in which Japanese photographers, professionals and amateurs, documented and interpreted the hubbub of these years is as varied as the events themselves. Throughout, they remained closely connected to artistic developments elsewhere.

French surrealism is obvious in the work of Ryukichi Shibuya (1907-95), while the war years pictures of Tadahiko Hayashi (1918-90) have a cold fascist tinge that would not have been out of place in 1930s Italy or Germany. But as they have done so many times before, artists in Japan shaped these alien currents into something uniquely indigenous. “Hanran” shows how creative their responses were in the 20th century.

For more information about “Hanran: 20th Century Japanese Photography at the National Gallery of Canada, visit www.gallery.ca.


Eriko Kimura: ‘Hanran’ — a curator’s view

“Hanran” is adapted from a larger exhibition of Japanese photography, which you also curated, and was held at the Yokohama Museum of Art (YMA) in 2017. Did you already know then that the show would travel abroad?

The 2017 exhibition, which was titled “Showa Portraits: Tracing the People and History of the Showa,” was planned in 2015. At the time, I was hoping it would travel abroad, but I was not sure it would. In the mid-term, the YMA plans to present more exhibitions that can tour internationally in order to expand the audience and recognizability of the museum as well as of its collections overseas. We made several different proposals to museums abroad in recent years and the “Hanran” exhibition became our first success.

Besides Ottawa, where else will Hanran travel?

We are not sure yet. We are still looking for another partner in North America.

Interest overseas for Japanese photography is relatively recent and there has been comparatively few large exhibitions presenting a comprehensive survey of the medium over a period as long as the Showa Era (1926-89) years. How does “Hanran” compare to similar exhibitions held in the last 20 years?

“Hanran” is an exhibition that shows socio-political change in 20th-century Japan through photography. In parallel, however, it also presents the artistic development of photography as an art form during that same period. This is rare. I haven’t checked all recent exhibitions of Japanese photography overseas, but in most cases, these have focused on specific artistic movements in photography or certain groups of photographers who are sharing a particular aesthetic.

During the first half of the Showa Era (1926-89), Western ideas and trends, from French surrealism to Russian constructivism, had a significance influence on the development of photography in Japan. Is there a particular moment when we can see Japanese photography breaking free of this influence and forging in new directions?

This was true not only during the first half of the Showa Era, but also in the latter half of that period. Throughout, Japanese photographers were keen on studying the world’s photographic movements. Even Takuma Nakahira, one of the leading figures of the are-bure-boke (rough, blurred and out-of-focus) movement in photography in the 1960s and ’70s mentioned that he was influenced by William Klein’s blurred imagery. That said, even though artistic expression was inspired by international movements, photographic trends in postwar Japan, such as postwar realism, are-bure-boke and compora-shashin (contemporary photography), all evolved independently from their original international influences.

If you had to identify one change or milestone in the entire Showa years that is particularly significant in the history of Japanese photography, what would that be?

From the end of the 1940s and into the ’50s, many new camera and picture magazines were established. This was the era of high economic growth, in which ordinary people enjoyed a sudden rise in material wealth and became able to buy cameras. Professional photographers such as Ihei Kimura or Ken Domon, who established the basis of realist photography by taking snapshots, became notable public figures among amateur photographers as well as with ordinary people who just enjoyed looking at picture magazines. This is when photography became the dominant visual culture among the Japanese.

How constraining was censorship during the years of the U.S. occupation (1945-1952)? Did the lifting of that censorship mark a significant expansion of creative freedoms for Japanese photographers?

In terms of the history of censorship in Japan, it is crucial to mention the situation during the war. In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army set guidelines for newspapers and magazines to control media coverage. Later, between 1941 and 1945, the authorities consolidated photography magazines, shrinking their numbers from 10 to four. De facto censorship was also conducted through control of the paper supply. During that period, only a few non-official documentary photographs (mostly by non-professional photographers) were secretly taken and published after the war.

When it comes to censorship, this was the hardest moment in Japan. By comparison, U.S. censorship during the period of occupation was probably less strict overall. During that time, censors from U.S. authorities at the General Headquarters checked all the articles in newspapers and magazines before publication and prohibited criticism of the doctrines and strategy of the Allies during the war. As a result, restrictions on photographing the extent of the damage by the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the biggest losses at that moment. Later, photographers such as Hiromi Tsuchida, who is featured in the “Hanran” exhibition, tried to make up for that loss by taking images of people, artifacts and landscapes connected to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, accompanied with texts, to try to capture what by then was gone.

Daido Moriyama is one of the most important photographers to have emerged in the late 1960s and early ’70s. However his works are not included in “Hanran.” Is there a particular reason?

This is simply because the works of Daido Moriyama in the collection of the Yokohama Museum of Art are limited to portraits, which, I felt, did not reinforce or add to the narrative of the exhibition. The museum is still building its collection of Japanese photography.

In Japan, until the end of the Showa years, photography was overwhelmingly a man’s world. During that period, the Kimura Ihei Award (est. 1975), was awarded only once to a woman — Miyako Ishiuchi, in 1978 — while no woman appears to have received the Domon Ken Award (est. 1982). How much has changed in the past 30 years and how would you describe the role and influence of Japanese female photographers today?

Things have been gradually changing. But it is worth pointing out that the art world in Japan in general was long dominated by men. This was not a situation unique to the field of photography. Today, however, I feel the leading Japanese female photographers are more active on the international scene than on the domestic one. For example, Miyako Ishiuchi, a winner of the Hasselblad Award, had a solo show at the Getty Museum recently. Mao Ishikawa’s works entered the collection of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and she also took part in the Asian Pacific Triennial in Australia. Many other female photographers live and work abroad.

With the exception of two works, by Yasamusa Morimura and Nobuyoshi Araki, all pictures in “Hanran” are monochrome. Is there a reason for this?

This is both a curatorial choice and a coincidence. Many of the Japanese photographers in the Showa Era prefered to work in black and white rather than with color, probably because it is more eloquent in expressing subtle nuances or aggressive print texture. Both color photographs that are shown in “Hanran” were made in the Heisei Era, which started in 1989. One of these, Nobuyoshi Araki’s “Photomania Diary ’91, 1518-8-99,” is a project made of numerous slides, taken over a period of time, with the first images taken in black and white and, towards the end, in color. As a curator, I wanted to show the turning points of contemporary photography during the Showa Era but also contrast expressionistic black-and-white photography with conceptual color photography.

Yasumasa Morimura’s career took off towards the very end of the Showa Era. The work included in the show is from a 1996 series of the Heisei years. Why did you decide to include him?

Yasumasa Morimura is in the exhibition because his picture “Self Portrait (Actress): After Hara Setsuko,” reenacts a scene in a famous Showa film. Morimura is an artist who started his career as a photographer but then shifted to conceptual art. After making constructed still-life photographs, he developed a unique approach in which he turned himself into the protagonists of famous paintings and figures of historical events.

Setsuko Hara is one of the actresses who is most closely associated with the Showa Era. She also starred in many propaganda films during the war. A portrait of her from the 1930s in picturesque style appears at the very beginning of “Hanran,” and a realistic snapshot from the 1950s is also presented in the middle of the exhibition. And, towards the end, she appears again, but this time in a reenaction by a male artist, Morimura, in the guise of a contemporary photographic artwork. Her presence in this exhibition also represents the transition of Japanese mentality as well as the artistic transition of Japanese photography throughout the Showa Era.

Those who wish to learn more about this topic should consult the article I wrote about Hara Setsuko and Japanese transition in the 20th century. It can be found here: http://bit.ly/setsuko-hara.