Thursday, January 10, 2008

In a green field just outside the Indonesian city of Palembang, a freshly landed Japanese paratrooper comes up in a crouch, already leveling a pistol at his first opponent of the day. The blue sky behind him, filled with the white parachutes of his descending comrades, looks like an ocean full of jellyfish.

This dramatic scene is a detail from a 1942 propaganda painting by Goro Tsuruta. Since the end of the Great East Asian War (which you might know as World War II) until this month, the painting had not been shown in public until this portion of it wound up on the cover of the September 4th issue of the Japan/Korea edition of Newsweek. The headline read: “The Art of War: A New Exhibition Challenges the Japanese to Face Their Painful Past.”

This is a perfect example of overblown headline writing. On the one hand, the exhibit was significant because it was supposedly the first time that a collection of Japanese war propaganda art has been shown publicly here since the surrender. On the other hand, it ran for only six days in a one-room basement gallery on a quiet Tokyo side street. When some friends and I visited it last week, we found a small group of old men who were apparently hanging out there all day. We stayed for about an hour ourselves. During that time, the exhibit had only two other visitors, a pair of Japanese men in their twenties who stayed for only a few minutes. Hardly a nation-changing event.

There were only about 30 works on display, and the first ones we saw were a collection of ten pencil sketches of soldiers by a guy named Kuribara Makoto. They were tattered around the edges and some were grease-stained, so we all assumed that Kuribara was a soldier himself, and that he made these sketches to kill time in the trenches. Most of the soldiers are sketched either from behind or in rear quarter-profile. All of them are stark figure studies, showing a man and sometimes his gun; there is no background at all. The usual pose was a man lying on his belly with a gun held in front of him and the soles his boots toward the viewer, or casually crouching against a rifle with its butt on the ground and barrel in the air: exactly the attitudes you would expect to find weary soldiers in if they were guarding a piece of ground somewhere on a day when nothing was happening. It was easy to imagine Kuribara on such duty himself, taking the afternoon to sketch his view of the guys ahead of him.

This was the most surprising thing about the works on display: only a handful portray any violence. None of them seem to even show a dead body (although my friend Tony and I had an argument about whether a certain figure in one painting was dead or just lying down). Aside from Kuribara’s rumpled figures and a few gore-free battle scenes, most of the paintings show plain or handsome young men looking clean and neat and calm in their new uniforms. The intended effect was to inspire confidence and pride, but today’s viewer can only regret that so many of those guys never got much older.

As for the battle scenes, it is interesting to note that only one of them (”Kota Baru” by Nakamura Kenichi) showed soldiers on both sides of the fight. This is an ink-wash drawing that shows a group of uniformed Japanese soldiers dramatically slashing into the enemy ranks with long swords. No blood appears as the faceless enemies (British or Malaysian) fall off to the sides, and the only gun in the picture is unused in the background. It’s kabuki in khaki. A few tiny planes in one corner of the sky offer the only confirmation that this is indeed the 20th century.

Only one other painting shows enemy soldiers. It depicts the British defenders of Hong Kong as seen by the Japanese attackers. It is apparently just before sunrise, and the viewer is charging a hilltop machine gun nest beneath a canopy of camouflage netting. The city lights and glimmering harbor of Hong Kong are just within sight over the shoulder of the hill. Judging by the panic-stricken expressions on the two visible British faces, the goal is attainable.

There is only one picture of the home front, a rather melancholy scene in which three generations — grandmother, mother, and little boy with war toys — huddle on a tatami floor while the mother opens a scroll that was delivered along with a military medal in a small box. The medal is the telling detail. It wouldn’t have been sent to these three if the man of the family were alive to wear it. It doesn’t seem to fit the theme of pro-war propaganda.

Nearly all of the paintings are artistically realistic. One of the exceptions, which was probably the largest picture on display, is an impressionistic portrayal of some traditional Japanese comic dancers entertaining the troops in China. The artist’s thick brush strokes are perfect for the large and deliberately silly figures of the performers who dominate the left side of the painting, but they reduce the audience of soldiers on the right side to a sea of grotesque and clownish smiles. At first I wondered if perhaps the artist was deliberately subverting his own message by making the soldiers so ugly, but then I decided not. The audience (not the performers) is lit from above by a bare light bulb in a metal hood. The cone of light cast by this bulb, bright white at the top and fading into darkness below, looks exactly like Mount Fuji topped with snow. It dominates about one third of the canvas. The soldiers are smiling so wildly because, as the Fuji-light symbolizes and the dancers attest, this part of China has BECOME Japan.

In addition to the paintings, there were also twenty or so official photo portraits of the artists themselves. In most cases, the guys (and of course they are all guys) don’t look military at all but rather like stereotypical artists with pointy goatees, disheveled Trotsky manes, and dangling cigarettes. Most of them are posed in front of their work. One guy is slumped over a table as if exhausted. His chin rests in the crook of his left arm while his left hand fingers the hair on the side of his head. His right hand rests on the table with a cigarette smoldering between his knuckles. The table is practically buried under dozens of paintbrushes, pencils, and artistic tools. The entire wall behind him is covered by a mural he seems to have just completed. It looks like a busy highway after a strafing. Vehicular wreckage is everywhere and people are dashing about in a panic. The artist’s large, innocent eyes are turned up toward the camera beneath his bushy brows. Look at me, his expression says. I’m sensitive. I’m bohemian. I’m Imperialistic Japan.

The only one whose photo didn’t fit this pattern was Kuribara, the pencil-sketch artist. He is shown in the field, standing with a large sketch pad balanced on one arm as he draws a row of three soldiers who are seated on the ground in front of him. He wears the same uniform that they do. The top half of his face out of the picture, as if the photographer were more interested in the three men sitting on the ground. The bottom half of his face is obscured by the shadow of his hat. This visual anonymity was oddly fitting, since we were left to wonder whether Kuribara was an official war artist from the start, or a talent discovered in the ranks. There’s no way to know, since the show included no biographical or historical explanations and the only information offered about each painting was title, artist and date. Perhaps the exhibitors thought that too much editorializing would be risky.

As an interesting postscript, the exhibit concluded with a pair of postwar street scenes by an artist whose simple and humorous style resembled a grungy version of that of Sid Hoff, the American children’s book illustrator. Hung side by side, these two wide canvases at first seem to represent one continuous street. That may be the intention, but closer inspection reveals a time difference between them. The first picture is immediately after Japan’s surrender, and the second is during the early days of the Occupation. The first picture shows thoroughly beaten Japanese soldiers trudging home, while the second shows robust and cheerful American soldiers entering the scene. One is entering a bordello. Everything is in ruins in the first picture, but the second has a new building under construction in the background even while most of the people seem to be living outdoors. In the first picture, people are lining up at a wooden shack to receive rations. In the second, there is still no grocery store but fish and grilled squid are being sold on the sidewalk. In the first picture nobody is working, but the second picture shows a tiny spark of industry in a group of men who have opened an outdoor shoe-repair shop. The first picture shows a few people shirtless and barefoot, but in the second picture everyone is fully dressed — although fully dressed in rags for the most part.

Life is far from perfect is either picture, but the direction of progress is clear. These last two paintings tell us that, despite the brave images in the rest of the exhibit, things began to go right only after Japan lost.