Japan’s Modern Divide

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In Yasunari Kawabata’s masterpiece Snow Country, Shimamura, a man of leisure and, after a fashion, a scholar, pursues a love of Occidental dance, ballet in particular. Kawabata ascribes an “air of unreality” to Shimamura’s enthusiasm, and notes that, “A ballet he had never seen was an art in another world.” The Getty Museum’s exhibition, and accompanying book, Japan’s Modern Divide : The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto*, has an air of unreality about it as well. This is not a criticism. It’s more an inescapable fact, forced on the viewer by the passage of time in Hamaya’s case and, in Yamamoto’s case, a design feature, given his surrealist leanings.

It’s fitting that Hiroshi Hamaya should have responded strongly to Snow Country, and that he sought out what was for him, initally, a very unfamiliar world: the remote provinces of Japan, where he first came into contact with traditional customs all but lost to his home city, Tokyo. Hamaya’s work looks today, in a number of meaningful ways, like not just another country to residents of the United States but another world. So much of his output depicts pre-World War II Japan, already a very old culture with distinct traditions and an unshakable sense of pride. Couple that with the transfigurations Japan underwent during and after the war, and Hamaya’s images belong thoroughly to the mists.

Much of Hamaya’s early work presents deliberately-framed tableaus of street life in Tokyo. It doesn’t appear that his intent was to frame these subjects dishonestly, as much as he romanticized their circumstances. This tendency is particularly evident in images like Dignified Looking Beggar, Ginza, Tokyo, 1936. The man in the photo does have striking, high cheekbones and an upright bearing. His belongings are bound neatly in a series of cloth bags and fastened together with twine. But Hamaya’s imputation of dignity skirts the facts on the ground. In an essay on Hamaya, Jonathan M. Reynolds notes that, “Although this was an era of economic hardship and intense political tensions, there are surprisingly few signs of conflict in Hamaya’s freelance work of the 1930s. Many of Hamaya’s photos were destined for glossy pictorial magazines in which there would have been no place for gritty, muckraking journalism.” The aesthetic dimension alone is the strength of this and others among Hamaya’s early work. Indeed Hamaya’s presentation is almost cinematic, isolating moments of calm and strength in what were no doubt otherwise very difficult lives.

His disaffection with the haste of city life and what he saw as the fragmenting, or outright abandonment of those traditions, led him to the far northern reaches of the country, to Niigata Prefecture. He was inspired, in part, by Yasunari Kawabata’s classic novel, Snow Country (Yukiguni), in which Shimamura, a scholar and man of leisure from Tokyo, spends part of each winter in a remote, snow-covered region. At one point, he’s told that the previous winter, “The roads weren’t open until May, a month later than usual. You know the shop up at the ski grounds? An avalanche went through the second floor of it.” Hamaya traveled to an area with similarly unforgiving geography which, coupled with the severity of its winter weather, kept much intact, relatively impervious to progress.

I’ve had to come into the mountains to want to talk to people again,” Shimamura remarks, early in Kawabata’s novel. This isn’t literally true of Hiroshi Hamaya, at least not as far as we know. His desire to take pictures is a sort of corollary, however, and he did have to come into the mountains to find subjects he wanted to shoot after his disillusionment with Tokyo, and the vagaries of urban life. His timing – Hamaya first visited a remote coastal area on an assignment in 1939 – was perhaps fortuitous. Kawabata had written two years earlier of houses “built in the style of the old regime. No doubt they were there when provincial lords passed down this country road.”

The result, surprisingly, reflects Kotaro Iizawa’s insight that despite the fact Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto “appear to be at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum,” there is common ground in their work. Certainly Hamaya’s studies of provincial life are meant as a strain of ethnography, but there are also images so artfully framed that, for all but the subjects depicted, there is a truly surreal quality. His 1956 photo, Children Singing in a Snow Cave, Niigata Prefecture, is shot from outside what appears to be a child-height doorway. The scene inside is lit by candles and features a teacher and a group of three girls and two boys, lit by candles. There’s no indication they’re aware of Hamaya, and the little tableau seems complete enough to be a world of its own.

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A similar sense accompanies the shot of a line of boys, trekking through snowbound terrain (New Year’s Visit with Jiz0, Niigata Prefecture, 1940), the first of whom carries a Jizo Bodhisattva on his back. Hamaya’s choice to frame them closely works in much the same way as Children Singing, in that it reduces the world to their immediate stark surroundings and the endurance of their faith. Yet a similar shot, one taken from a distance ([Children] Singing as They Go, Drive Away Birds, 1940) produces this unreality as well, with the purity of the snow, marked only by a series of footprints, against the background, which loses most all of its detail to distance and darkness. These aren’t the sum of Hamaya’s work – his portraits are also on offer, as are his later influential aerial landscapes. His photos of protests in postwar Japan still feel urgent, perhaps because some of the concerns don’t belong as firmly to the past as we might expect, given the passage of time.

Perhaps Kansuke Yamamoto was more purely an artist than Hamaya. There are glimmers of Man Ray in some images of Yamamoto’s (Stapled Flesh, for instance), but a naïve streak in others, as with the crude illustration of a birdcage laid over the sprawl of what appears to be a suburb in Reminiscence, from 1953.

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There’s an uncanny sense of control to Yamamoto’s work. This may seem obvious given how deliberate the process behind the creation of these images surely was, but something more is at work here. Perhaps I’m responding to the confidence apparent in Yamamoto’s images, these odd hybrid products like Floating City, where he depicts a city within a sphere, hovering above what looks like the platform of an aircraft carrier…in what might be a bare desert landscape? There’s something ominous about Those Who Do Not Return, in light of its 1954 composition, such a short time after the war, and its depiction of what appears to be a dark smudge of hills, in back of low houses, blotted with smudges that, oddly, suggest the smoke of explosions, beneath a series of sharp, plunging lines from the sky overhead. 1970’s Magnifying Glass, Rendezvous is no more than a blank background, a single, meandering line and a model of an airline jet, sans livery, but it’s successful in the way images of its type seldom are: its cryptic composition appears to hold answers, though to what, it’s hard to say. And though the answers refuse to show themselves, it’s hard not to keep searching for them. My natural affinity is with Hamaya, but Yamamoto is a wonderful counterpoint, occasional overlap aside.

The curators here also acknowledge the value of including exemplary images by other photographers of the period, both Japanese and European. the presentation is thorough while still acknowledging the dangers inherent in the urge to the comprehensive; we get a distinct flavor of each man’s work, in Yamamoto’s case, reaching beyond his photography to include his poetry, translated here by John Solt:

Legend of a Buddhist Temple

a birdcage without a bird and

from a garden without a birdcage with a bird

countless sparks rise up

like a Hindu saint’s apocalypse

along the line of the white Coliseum

shaking the even more grotesque Colossus

sending a sign of the night’s festival

the body writhes like a hummingbird

leaning a cheek on the fingers of a heathen

giving a fierce numbness

Japan’s Modern Divide is an exciting presentation of work from two significant Japanese photographers. And for those of us who won’t have access to the Getty itself before the show closes, the accompanying book is a remarkable consolation prize.

– John McIntyre

* I regret to say that I haven’t had a chance to see the exhibition itself. If you’re in LA, the exhibition runs until August 25. If you’re not, the book is an uncommonly rich document.

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