Not what you’d expect

It hasn’t been daytime for a while in contemporary Japanese fiction. Novels such as Haruki Murakami's recent After Dark and 2005's award-winning Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara depict nights with streets glistening silver like light's giving its last gift to the surface.

At midnight, a Tokyo "salaryman" locks himself inside his air-conditioned office, staring blankly at a computer screen. Somewhere in a suburb, his wife sits alone in the kitchen, locked in depression, staring blankly at the countertop.

A young girl props herself up in a cracked leather booth at Denny's at 3 a.m. Her fingers, slender like toothpicks, stick out from the ash-blackened cuff of her hoodie as she pinches a page in a stained paperback. The bag next to her is packed with clothes. There's a toothbrush in there somewhere. Across town, the teen's sister, a fashion model, has been asleep for days in a dingy hotel room.

Isolation and loss of identity are key themes in contemporary Japanese film as well. The past couple of years, they've been addressed through absurd humor. But a black void still exists in cinema. Take, for example, Diet, a short horror flick by manga author Kazuo Umezz. We watch a chubby girl slurp slimy noodles at a take-out joint. Panicked because her boyfriend dumped her, she rushes the meal. Weeks later, after an insane period of weight loss and gain, and loss and gain again, she goes crazy and devours her ex too. And in Junk Food, director Masashi Yamamoto portrays a cinema verité tragedy. A woman in a well-tailored suit and black heels barely copes as a computer programmer by day and heroin addict by night. The beautiful junkie gets beaten up and coats her pain by chugging cartons of milk. Her gashed mouth, like the fat girl's mouth, is an endless drain.

These characters act out their obsessions against backdrops of anonymous teenagers in shag hairdos, gangs of burnt-orange flopheads or "red haired monkies" with forked tongues.

Tokyo is rough and lonely, as every big city is. But something is seriously sideways in a country with the highest suicide rate, rising incidents of untreated depression and the lowest birthrate of all industrialized nations. In his book Shutting Out the Sun, author Michael Zielenziger writes that Japan has created its own "lost generation."

The thing is, people are not quite "lost," they're hiding. So many are hiding, in fact, that there is now a name for one aspect of the disturbing social phenomenon. Hikikomori translates as "withdrawal" and refers to males, often beginning as young as 14, who become shut-ins, spending decades not going to school or socializing, isolated in their bedrooms. Women are hiding, too, but not by being anti-social. A growing number of young Japanese females are becoming exhibitionists. In Snakes and Earrings, the petite main character Lui isn't punk enough, so she's deemed a "Barbie girl." Teenagers see themselves as manga characters and get hitched with Hello Kitty weddings.

These issues related to the body, gender and identity are thoughtfully considered in Out of the Ordinary/Extraordinary at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, photography by 11 renowned Japanese artists. The show, curated by the celebrated Michiko Kasahara of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and organized by the Japan Foundation in Tokyo in 2004, portrays existence that's both numbing and painful, heart wrenching and heartwarming.


The University of Michigan Museum of Art is a mess of sawdust and squealing machines as the historic Alumni Memorial Hall undergoes a $35.4 million restoration and expansion. During the renovation — which includes a 53,000-square-foot addition for new galleries and rooms for the collection to be completed in early 2009 — administrators decided it was important that the institution continue exhibitions. UMMA has found a temporary space, called Off/Site, located on central campus, on the corner of South University and South Forest, in a former restaurant.

UMMA's senior curator of Asian Art, Maribeth Graybill, has planned several photography shows for the interim period, including such highlights as Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran (Sept. 29 through Dec. 30, 2007), Inge Morath and Arthur Miller: China (Jan. 12 through March 23, 2008) and William Christenberry: Photographs, 1961–2005 (April 5 through June 1, 2008). About her selection, Graybill says, "The city has a public drawn to photography, so we thought explorations of place, as an emotional expression of human lives, would be a good choice."

Graybill's struck gold with Out of the Ordinary. After putting out a call for a photo show to everyone she knows via e-mail, a peer in New York told her to "get the Japan Foundation show," by Kasahara Michiko, a renowned scholar and curator who has spent a decade working in the United States and Japan, organizing exhibitions and writing books about photography and feminism.

Kasahara, who has a bachelor's degree in sociology from Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo and a master's degree in photography from Chicago's Columbia College, made a name for herself in the past decade as curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (where she works today) and Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art. Kasahara grabbed media and public attention for her exhibitions Gender Beyond Memory: the Works of Contemporary Women Artists, in 1996, Alfred Stieglitz and his Contemporaries, in 1997, and later A Kiss in the Dark: Contemporary Japanese Photography. She commissioned art for the Venice Biennale's Japanese Pavilion two years ago, and her contribution to the Japanese section of the Brooklyn Museum's praised Global Feminisms exhibition is on display in New York through the end of this month.

Beyond these continuing efforts, Kasahara has been instrumental in encouraging an open dialogue between Japan and other countries. Established in 1972, the Japan Foundation is recognized for supporting cultural exchange by producing what one would expect: blockbuster exhibitions recognizing the country's heritage. With Out of the Ordinary, though, Kasahara has convinced a quasi-government organization to support a show with provocative content addressing social problems.

Out of the Ordinary is by no means a survey show. Photography is immensely popular in the land of Nikon, Fuji, Canon, Olympus and Minolta. (Even amateur photographers take their work seriously, and development labs commonly offer high resolution, large-format printing, as Graybill says, "just to process pictures of your trip to the Alps"). In an e-mail interview from Tokyo, Kasahara writes, "There are many varieties in Japanese photography, as in the United States." Cityscapes and landscapes are still prevalent forms shaping artistic expression in Asia. For this show, Kasahara says "this group is certainly the one who pushes boundaries with content." Conveying the dark and despondent mood that hangs over today's Japan like low, heavy clouds, in her catalog essay, she writes:

The economy shows no sign of improvement; caught in a deflationary spiral, middle-aged workers live in fear of redundancy while young people have trouble finding employment. More than 30,000 people are driven to suicide every year. We read of a 12-year-old boy killing a 4-year-old girl, the kind of crime that defies the imagination. The structural reforms which the government likes to boast about have been emasculated and only vested interests continue to thrive. Nothing seems capable of standing up against the logic of capital or the simplistic slogans of those in control. This society, that we were brought up to think of as being secure, is proving to be unstable, people who had thought they were happy are becoming irritated, and we are left with a feeling of impotence after having been proved powerless to prevent the unjust war in Iraq. ... Sharing this general unease and irritation, while unable to avoid questioning the merit of simplification, contemporary artists find themselves confronted with the problem of what form of expression they should aim for.

These 11 photographers are entirely uninterested in didacticism, yet they could also care less about starting a shouting match with plucky "up yours" poses, which means their work is neither too fussy nor too hip. The technical skill is impressive, yet this conversation doesn't stop short at aesthetics.

With the advent of the Kodak "brownie" about a century ago, Americans and Europeans embraced spontaneity, taking the "faster" camera to picnics on beaches, grabbing the chance to snap a shot of a smiling toddler covered in sand. But, according to Graybill, "that's not the direction it went in Japan." In pictures from the early 1900s, Japanese families are well-dressed and poised for every single shot. "You never smiled for a photo," Graybill says. "It was about seriousness."

Hishikari Shunsaku's collaged photos are the result of a time-intensive process in which he uses scraps of newspaper to reproduce photographs of people without faces. This simple act of collage renders the subjects unrecognizable and heightens the sense of anonymity customary in photography in the early half of the 20th century, whether it's a picture of uniformed soldiers, a family portrait or a famous photo of the meeting between Emperor Hirohito and General Douglas MacArthur, taken at the end of World War II. With a painterly eye, Hishikari lays down paper scraps like they're bold brush strokes giving the figures dimension. People without faces are creepy and alien to look at (hence more than one Freud article and horror film on that topic), but Hishikari's photos are very human too, in their ambiguity. Sadness floats with you as you walk from picture to picture, noticing little difference between the relationship dynamic of a father and son or a supervising officer and a soldier.

While Hishikari eliminates a person's face in order to erase identity, Sugiura Kunié's silhouetted portraits, "The Artist Papers," are about embracing identity. The photograms, a result of placing objects directly on photo-sensitive paper and exposing it to light, present stark cut-outs of such recognizable artists as Jasper Johns, allowing the viewer to fill in the details. Her work is about the power of a profile, a subtly hopeful statement that we intuitively know each other better than we think because we are connected in ways we don't understand.

Identity is also about ownership, and several artists display the body as a surface to be scripted, open to the viewer's gaze. Well-known artist Sawada Tomoko has two series on display. Previously, in her "ID400" series, the 26-year-old artist disguised herself Cindy Sherman-style as 400 different women and took self-portraits in a photo booth. In her "Omiai ¥" series, featured here, Sawada overtly displays the individual as a commodity.

In traditional Japanese society, a woman entering a prearranged marriage often submits a high-quality studio shot, dressed in a kimono and modestly posed, to a potential groom so his family can judge her attitude and attractiveness, and her potential in a reproductive role.

Sawada also portrays herself as a sassy city girl suffocating in a short skirt and tight top, an outfit obviously intended for the male gaze. This may be the "Barbie girl" referred to in Snakes and Earrings — the copper-colored hair, bronzed visage and bright white eye-enhancing makeup modeled after a Western conception of beauty. Sawada's portraits may seem mocking at first glance, but she doesn't objectify females — she puts herself in their position, walks in their uncomfortable shoes, revealing her compassion toward youth who are hyperaware of the global public eye.

Also the subjects of scrutiny are ordinary people featured in Yokomizo Shizuka's "Strangers." Yokomizo sends a letter to people she has never met, asking to meet them at their home to take their photo at a certain time, on a certain date. If the stranger agrees, all he or she must do is open the curtain or pull up the blinds and look out the front window, which acts as both picture frame and prison. How much of your private self should you give to the public? How should you "frame" yourself to appear to others? An intimate connection between artist and subject, as well as between subject and the viewer, is established and severed in one moment. "Strangers" is about learning to live with loss.

Japanese law prohibits genitals and pubic hair from peeking out in public. For "In My Room," Takano Ryudai had to find some way around the rules, so he shot silken smooth legs in black lace stockings and glossy-lipped Kate Moss pouts — of men who look like women. Takano's work may be the most uncomfortable of all because it forces stereotypes. It's difficult to not feel guilty about emasculating the Asian men displayed here, who have what Westerners praise as ideal feminine features: almond-shaped eyes, full lips and smooth skin with high, angular cheekbones. It is much easier, for instance, to gawk at the disturbing spoof by Okada Hiroko, the Delivery by Male Project, a film installation with accompanying photos and sculpture about a man who gets himself pregnant with the help of reproductive medical technology.

In Takano's full-frontal pics, pants are down, yes, but the ambiguity this artist portrays penetrates deeper than gender assignment and sexuality. With arms that dangle at his side like dead weight and a slightly cocked head, one teen, who could pleasantly if plainly pass for a female, looks like he has gone somewhere else, ejected from society. But the muscles of his mouth turn down slightly, as if he's quietly trembling, caught between life and death just like the country he lives in, alternately honoring and forgetting its history since World War II.

Complicated familial relationships are the subject of Ishiuchi Miyako's diary about her relationship with her aging mother, featuring recent snapshots and old photos. In her group of black and white images entitled "Mother's," an elderly woman's flat and wrinkled breast hangs as beautiful and vintage as the second skin of a creased nightgown, also pictured, with sheer and delicately embroidered lace. There's something too about that early generation of mothers, who live their adult life doing loads of laundry with arthritic hands, finally shedding their motherly skins.

The Japan that visitors encounter in Out of the Ordinary is not the country "of the tea ceremony, the rock garden, the geisha and kabuki, or even animé," Graybill writes in the museum's brochure. Kasahara's is but one opinion, but she sees crisis. She believes joylessness in Japan cannot be rationalized as the result of a bad economy; the damage is the result, instead, of decades of new materialism and corporate interests cloaking a persistently antiquated society. We get a feel for an oppressive lack of — and desperate attempt at — individualism here. For example, there are Onodera Yuki's large-scale portraits of blurry, impressionistic crowd shots and a group of grinning faces. The figures, bunched together closely, are further obfuscated by a spectacular grainy effect that spreads the light, achieved by putting, of all things, a pearl in her camera. When a grain of sand gets stuck in its skin, an oyster mends itself with a beautiful substance.


Out of the Ordinary/Extraordinary: Contemporary Japanese Photography runs through Sept. 16 at UMMA Off/Site, 1301 S. University, Ann Arbor; 734-763-UMMA. This is the first North American venue for the exhibition, which has already traveled to Europe and Mexico, and soon arrives in New York.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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