Japan in Transition: 20th-Century Photography from Kimura to Morimura
Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 Tokyo Story is one of the most representative Japanese films of the Shōwa era. Exploring the generational conflicts between an elderly couple from the countryside and their grown-up children living in Tokyo, the film depicts the differences in values that emerged between Japan's capital city and other parts of the country during post-war reconstruction. The drama film is still renowned as a masterpiece of the golden age of Japanese cinema.
In Tokyo Story, actress Setsuko Hara, whose portrait appears twice in the exhibition, plays a young woman named Noriko who lost her husband in World War II. Unlike her two siblings-in-law, Noriko has not fully embraced the new spirit of Tokyo due to the burden of the past. When the parents visit she is more attentive to her in-laws than their own children and after the mother’s sudden death she continues to stand by her father-in-law. When he encourages her to move on and remarry, she breaks down in tears. In his 2015 book Eiga no sengo [Postwar Cinema], the critic Saburo Kawamoto assessed Hara’s performance: “Hara Setsuko was able to beautifully express the woman’s sadness because she had continually played a darling of the military regime during the war.” Hara first achieved fame as a screen actress before the war and appeared in many Japanese-German co-productions, and later in government propaganda films. As the widow in Tokyo Story, she is marked by the old values and the pre-war establishment, exemplifying the way in which Japanese people were suddenly forced to abandon their beliefs at the end of the war.
Presenting images by 28 photographers, the exhibition Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography, on view at the National Gallery of Canada, illustrates the dramatic changes to the lives of ordinary people during the Shōwa period, Emperor Hirohito’s era from 1926 to 1989. Many of the works in the exhibition were taken in Tokyo. The exceptions are images made in places deeply scarred by World War II and the lasting presence of military bases such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Yokohama, Yokosuka and Okinawa. Tokyo is particularly significant as it underwent tremendous transformation, with its population increasing from approximately 4.69 million in 1926 to nearly 12 million in 1989, while the country’s overall population roughly doubled from approximately 61 million to 123 million. Twentieth-century Japan is seen in this exhibition as evolving in tandem with the momentous development and expansion of the Tokyo metropolis.
Following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, photographers, including Kōji Morooka, Hiroshi Hamaya and Kineo Kuwabara, began to capture the changes taking place in Tokyo, recording its urbanization and modernization. How did the mixture of old and new in the city's districts, such as Ginza, Sumida and Asakusa, look to people at the time? Images of workers on the way to their jobs in Marunouchi, the dance halls in Ginza, the city's train station and the influx of Western cars provided people of the era with their first look at the urban culture of offices and bustling streets. The fresh and visual look of the city became a favourite motif of the Shinko Shashin (New Photography) movement, which flourished in the 1930s. Eschewing the romantic Pictorialist approach that preceded it, the group took its cues from Western avant-garde photography. Focusing on the camera's "mechanical eye," the artists created unique forms of expression using techniques such as extreme close-ups, elevated and wide angles and photomontage.
During World War II photography came to be seen as a means of disseminating information on national policy both inside and outside of the country. Photographers also explored the medium as a tool for documenting society at large. Part of his series of photographs on the changes to Tokyo's first westernized commercial district, Nakagawa Kazuo's Ginza July 31, 1945 captures the aftermath of the concentrated airstrikes in this part of the city. It was only after the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952, when the US censorship on images was lifted, however, that the haunting images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, destroyed by nuclear bombs in August 1945, were released.
Post-war restoration and high economic growth marked Japan's late Shōwa period. The 1960s saw grassroot activism, anti-establishment activities and student protests spread across the country. Photographers like Hamaguchi Takashi highlighted the unrest and violent clashes between the authorities and students or workers. The period also witnessed national excitement with the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and Expo' 70, and a continued growth and urbanization of the city. These conditions gave rise to countless realistic photographs that exposed the everyday lives of regular people. In 1963 the Konica Corporation (now Konica Minolta Inc) introduced the automatic exposure camera, making picture taking more accessible to the masses. It coincided with the revival of camera magazines at the same time when Japan embraced photography as a national pastime.
The exhibition includes work by three women photographers – Toyoko Tokiwa, Mao Ishikawa and Miyako Ishiuchi. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law, enforcing equality among workers regardless of gender, was finally enacted in 1985, and the Heisei Period (Emperor Akihito’s era), which succeeded Showa in 1989, has witnessed a sharp increase in female photographers. In the male-dominated society of the Showa era, however, women were pioneers. Based in Yokohama (Tokiwa), Okinawa (Ishikawa), and Yokosuka (Ishiuchi), rather than Tokyo, these three photographers brought a female perspective to aspects of Japanese life turning their lenses on scenes that remained apart from the more glamourous portrayal of the period, such as red-light districts and life in the presence of US military bases.
The exhibition concludes with Yasumasa Morimura’s Self-portrait (Actress series): After Hara Setsuko (1996). Known for creating self-portraits in which he transforms himself into important historical figures and protagonists in famous paintings, Morimura here stares out at the viewer in his guise as the actress Setsuko Hara from a scene from Tokyo Story. The artist, a man born after the war and living in the Heisei Period, embodies the physical disparities and historical differences between himself and his subject, a woman who shouldered the burdens of the Showa Period. Through his image he urges us to reappraise ideas about social issues such as gender, race and ideology that have changed with the times. Once the bubble economy burst and a wide range of values was relativized, Morimura (as Hara) makes the viewer reconsider Shōwa Japan, an era spanning the dramatic history and developments of the 20th century.
Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography, organized by the Yokohama Museum of Art in collaboration with the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 11, 2019 to March 22, 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.