- Art and Engagement in Early Postwar Japan by Justin Jesty
Justin Jesty's Art and Engagement in Early Postwar Japan is a brilliant puzzle box of a book—at times vexing, but mostly delightful.
Jesty's stated aim is to use avant-garde visual art in 1950s Japan to rediscover the highly contested nature of Japan's emerging political and social contracts in the "early postwar" period from 1945 to 1960. A second aim is to propound a new model for how art and politics interact, a model that "moves beyond the idea that the artwork or artist unilaterally authors political significance, to trace how creations and expressive acts may (or may not) actually engage the terms of shared meaning and value" (p. 256).
Although he touches on many other artists along the way, Jesty builds the majority of his analysis around three case studies. First, he examines three socialist realist visual artists—Katsuragawa Hiroshi, Ikeda Tatsuo, and Nakamura Hiroshi—who worked within a new subgenre of "reportage" in the early 1950s; next, he discusses the ideology of the schoolteacher-led Sōzō Biiku Kyōkai (Society for Creative Aesthetic Education) as context for evaluating three films by avant-garde filmmaker Hani Susumu; finally, he considers the rise and fall of the Kyūshū-ha, a radically egalitarian regional art collective focused around the southern city of Fukuoka. In the works of these artists, Jesty argues, art was rendered political, and politics was made artful.
On the delightful side, Jesty is a lyrical writer whose vibrant, seemingly effortless prose is a true joy to read. He fully invests his inexhaustible reserves of writerly panache in each and every analytical point. His observations are by turns serious, thoughtful, whimsical, and irreverent. By never allowing himself to be bored, the author keeps the reader interested and engaged as well. In particular, Jesty excels at persuasively excavating the mindsets of underappreciated artists working with limited resources at [End Page 230] a time when Japan's future role in the postwar world still seemed entirely uncertain and even the act of creating an artwork seemed invested with incredible power and even danger. It is at this register of recovering a certain early postwar frisson, even paranoia, that Jesty most brilliantly succeeds in undermining and destabilizing any remaining notion of 1950s Japan as a staid prelude to a supposedly inevitable political and social consolidation in the 1960s. In addition, the book is lavishly illustrated with numerous black-and-white images as well as 16 glorious, full-page, full-color plates of several of the most visually arresting artworks among those Jesty considers.
The book is not without some slight vexations, however. First of all, it could have been organized more efficiently. In particular, many terms, events, and important figures are mentioned in passing dozens or even hundreds of pages before they are explained or introduced in enough detail to be legible to a nonspecialist. For instance, Jesty bafflingly notes that "one prominent theorist exemplified avant-garde vision with reference to William Tell" (p. 49), without naming the "theorist" in question or providing any citation, only to finally elaborate this point 44 pages later (p. 93). Similarly, he tantalizingly mentions the "ill-conceived armed struggle campaign" of the Japan Communist Party (JCP) (p. 57) and "the JCP's misadventures in the early 1950s" (p. 61) but does not provide a full explanation of what any of this refers to until page 82. Likewise, he repeatedly employs the terms "naturalist realism" and "avant-garde realism" as if these are widely understood terms beginning on page 72, only to reveal that they are his own coinages and explain what they mean on page 89 and after. The result is a kind of treasure hunt to find which unexplicated terms might be explained in fulsome detail at some unknown later point in the book.
A similar issue arises with Jesty's artistic protagonists. Artists such as Katsuragawa Hiroshi and Ikeda Tatsuo are mentioned numerous times before we are officially "introduced" to them with...