Home > Events, Reviews > ‘Tokyo: Art and Photography’ at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

‘Tokyo: Art and Photography’ at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

29 July 2021 – 3 January 2022

Ahhh… Edo, Edo, Edo… …city of dreams, and occasional nightmares… …as Kumagai Jiro Naozane in the final part of the Kabuki play ‘Kumagai Jinya’ (Kumagai’s Battle Camp) says about the fragility of human existence “Juroku nen wa hito mukashi, aa, yume da yume da” (Sixteen years, like a day. Ahhh! It’s a dream, a dream). And if any phrase best represents both the negative and positive potentialities that have emerged from the natural and man-made adversities that have afflicted Tokyo and best reflect, at least in the mind of this reviewer, its impermanence, of almost continual destruction and re-construction since its inception as Edo, it is this one.

Edo (lit: ‘estuary’), originally a small fishing village, became prominent as the city of the Tokugawa Shogunate after the battle of Sekigahara when, in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun and supreme ruler of Japan and based his capital there. With the demise of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the advent of modern Japan with the inception of the Meiji era in 1868, and the move of the Imperial capital there from Kyoto, the new Meiji government gave it the name Tokyo (‘Eastern Capital’).  

With Japan’s borders currently effectively closed due to the pandemic, a modern ‘sakoku’ (Japan’s isolation under the Tokugawas) perhaps, this very welcome exhibition in effect helps to bring Edo/Tokyo to the UK. Ranging across an extensive period of time the exhibition covers the city’s historical development and the emergence of a more recent, modern experimental, culture through the medium of art and photography.

Mika Ninagawa installation – Meguro Cherry Blossoms

The entrance to the exhibition is via an installation, a corridor, almost a Kabuki ‘hanamichi’ (flower path), delightfully smothered in photographs of the famed Meguro cherry blossoms taken by the daughter of the late theatre director Yukio Ninagawa,  the photographer Mika Ninagawa, whose studio is in the area and whose photographs are on display later in the exhibition.

Throughout the exhibition there is a focus on famous places, or ‘meisho’, as interpreted through artistic mediums both historical and modern, and how popular they were and how much the fashions and lifestyles of the day were influenced by the woodblock prints of such places.

Diorama Map Tokyo, Nishino Sohei, 2004. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery

One the strong themes that emerges from the exhibition is self-evident; a constant, recycling of the city. On the one hand due to countless calamities that have assailed it, from volcanic eruptions, severe earthquakes and fires to extensive bombings, and on the other through the man-made de-construction and construction of buildings and neighbourhoods. Some of the modern buildings and neighbourhoods are here interpreted and rendered using more historical style portrayals such as that of the Tokyo Government towers in Shinjuku City, eerily reminiscent of the Aburaya Bathhouse from ‘Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’…

Original Plan of Tokyo Metropolitan Government by Yamaguchi Akira, 2018
© Yamaguchi Akira.
Private Collection, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery

…and the Sumida River and its surrounding.

Good Evening Sumida River, Sugiyama Mototsugu, 1993

An examination of the development of recognisably Western influenced artistic styles emerges as the timeline progresses. With it of some of the depictions of post disaster reconstructions such as the post 1923 earthquake re-construction of the city and the construction of Tokyo Metro’s Ginza Line…

The Reconstruction of the Imperial Capital and Tokyo Subway by Sugiura Hisui, 1929
© The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

Bright lights and big city might be an appropriate term for the city in its heyday aptly illustrated through ukiyo-e woodblock prints of popular stores where the fashions of the time were sold, and the ever popular fashionable trend setting Kabuki prints by such notables as the Kabuki portraitist Natori Shunsen, something which the Kabuki playwright Okamoto Kido goes into in some detail in his book ‘Meiji Gekidan: Ranpu no shita nite (Meiji Theatre: Under the Lamp) and which included amongst other things ‘kushi kanzashi’ hair pin combs with the ‘ura ume’ crest pattern, ‘rokusa gake’ and ‘O-sono gushi’ hairstyles and ancient patterns of yukata (light summer kimono)…

Matsumoto Koshiro VII as Benkei, 1935, Natori Shunsen

…though according to Okamoto Kido’s book, ‘it didn’t appear that such Kabuki associated trend setting was that widely fashionable. On this subject, adopting the look of popular actors’ Edo period characters became firmly established about five years after Meiji 14 (1881).

‘The Kabukiza Theatre at Night’, 1930, Fujimori Shizuo

The latter stages of the exhibition then move into the post WWII development of Japan, the experimental decade of the 60s associated with political upheaval and extraordinary creativity, and on through to today, which is where Mika Ninagawa’s more personal and personalised photographic essays are on display. Being someone with a historically traditionalist focus these and some of the more avant-garde photographs and exhibits are not within this reviewer’s orbit of cultural appreciation to review. Those attending the exhibition will have to make their own minds up about these later sections.

Simmon (c) Hosoe Eikoh. Courtesy Akio Nagasawa Gallery

On a final, somewhat critical note… …whilst the exhibition refers to a lot of the disasters that have hit the city there is a darker man-made side to its history which, though not glaringly obvious to the uninitiated, for the knowledgeable few is obviously not on show here. For instance the Kanto Massacre which took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1923 earthquake when around 6,000 ethnic Koreans, Burakumin (a former ‘untouchable’ group), and Japanese Socialists were killed by the Japanese police, military and vigilantes. There is ample literary and artistic interpretation, much of not in the appropriate format for this exhibition; novels, plays and documentaries. Most of the photographs of this event fall into the category of photo-journalism. There are a few attempts at artistic interpretation which though not on the highbrow artistic spectrum examples of which could potentially have been included to provide a more balanced view of this ‘city of dreams, and occasional nightmares’. For instance illustrations about the subject such as ‘Koreans fleeing to a Potato Field’ seen on a visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall housing the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake memorial exhibition in Sumida, Miyatake Gaikotsu’s 1923 caricature of ‘lazy and violent’ Japanese vigilantes attacking ethnic Koreans, and the illustrations on display at an exhibition entitled, “The Great Kanto Earthquake 95 Years on: The Slaughter of Koreans and Socially Vulnerable People”, held at the Korean Museum in Shinjuku. There are other instances where illustrative art depicting the darker man-made side of the city could have been included but which might have dampened down the reception of the exhibition and cast a shadow on the historical behaviour of some of the city’s residents.

There is ample literary and artistic interpretation, much of it not in the appropriate format for this exhibition; novels, plays and documentaries. Most of the photographs of this event fall into the category of photo-journalism. There are a few attempts at artistic interpretation which, though not on the highbrow artistic spectrum examples, could potentially have been included to provide a more balanced view of this ‘city of dreams, and occasional nightmares’.

An excellent exhibition! One which fascinates to the extent that this reviewer made two visits on the same day! Go and prepare to be blown away!!


Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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Review: 2019 Kabuki Kaomise – the National Theatre of Japan and the Shinbashi Enbujo

Review: ‘Manga マンガ’at the British Museum 23 May – 26 August 2019

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