- Inexorable Modernity: Japan’s Grappling with Modernity in the Arts Edited by Hiroshi Nara
Inexorable Modernity examines Japanese modernizers of art, aesthetics, theatre, and literature from the 1850s to the 1970s. The book contains eleven sparkling essays, including those written by two leading figures of Japanese Studies we lost in 2008 and 2011, respectively, cinema specialist Keiko MacDonald and theatre specialist David G. Goodman. Borrowing the editor Nara Hiroshi’s words, the book illuminates how modern Japanese arts undoubtedly experienced “an inexorable burden” due to the inevitable tension caused by “various oppositions of values, such as tradition and modernity” (p. 5). The book advocates the pluralistic aspects of Japanese modernity, developed as the country absorbed Western influences while strategically preserving local traditions.
Nara’s essay shows the philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō’s influence on wartime Japanese artists’ perspectives on art and modernity. For Watsuji, art is an expression of the artist’s “affiliation to the larger social and political entity”—in other words, to the nation (p. 112). Nara argues that Watsuji’s moral choice for art comes from cultural nationalism and validates his nostalgic “return to Japanese cultural roots in order to deal with modern cultural issues” (p. 121).
Six non-theatre essays demonstrate how Japanese paintings and literature transformed to the spread of such cultural nationalism during the war. Brenda Jordan examines Kawanabe Kyōsai’s satirical paintings criticizing the early Meiji government’s pro-Westernization ideologues and censorship during the era of bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment) and argues for indigenous yet modernizing roots in Kyōsai’s playful dissent. Kyōsai’s radicalism, however, was not seen in 1930s paintings. Hirayama Mikiko discusses art critic Kojima Kikuo’s contradictory critique for the eclectic new realism, incorporating aspects of nihonga (Japanese-style painting) and yōga (Western-style painting). Kojima particularly commended painter Yasui Sōtarō’s technique that “skillfully reconciles modernist art” while respecting conventional naturalistic representation unique to Japan’s own tradition (p. 61). Kojima’s ideological motive was to claim superiority of Japanese painting because it had been liberated from realism earlier than Western painting. Meanwhile, Tsuruya Mayu demonstrates how the nationalistic climate of the war motivated Japanese painters “to find a shortcut to ‘Japanize’ yōga” (p. 79) and, under the military’s support, developed patriotic war documentary paintings that “fulfilled the ambitions of Western inspired yōga painters to develop a truly ‘Japanese’ art from a transplanted foreign art” (p. 94).
In the literature section, McDonald argues that Mori Ōgai’s The Wild Geese (1915) demonstrates the conflict between the East and the West, using the two characters—the young and beautiful Otama, representing Old Edo, and a young medical student Okada, representing modern and Westernized Meiji. MacDonald’s meticulous analysis reminds us of her writings on Japanese film. Charles Shirō Inouye’s essay examines Izumi Kyōka’s Noble Blood, Heroic Blood (1894), which was the novel that Hanabusa Ryūgai’s shimpa (“new school”) [End Page 346] play The White Threads of the Waterfall (1895) was based on. Inouye focuses on Kyōka’s contrastive use of two kinds of public spaces, the traditional and temporary—the riverbed, represented by the performer Shiraito and the modern and permanent—the courthouse, represented by the judge Kinya. Despite the “communal, national agreement” (p. 225), Kinya’s risshin shusse (success in life) does not allow Shiraito to be with Kinya fully. Kyōka’s truth of modernity does not allow the couple to share “a sense of the private” and position themselves “within a public context” (p. 222). Modernity, for Kyōka, invites imagination to “overcome the relatively easier bond that a person has with family, villages and carnival” (p. 225). In the final essay, theatre specialist John Gillespie discusses Yokomitsu Riichi’s works before his 1932 shift to the mainstream. Starting with the short story “The Fly” (1923), written in the year of the Great Kanto earthquake, Gillespie defines Yokomitsu’s often ambiguous but experimental shinkankaku (new sensationalist) style...