The Lost Art of Resistance

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ANPO: Art X War uses a treasure trove of excavated art to depict widespread and organized resistance to the American military presence in Japan that proliferated in the 1950s, and culminated in the 1960 “ANPO struggle,” a national democratic uprising against the extension of the United States–Japan Security Treaty (ANPO is the treaty’s Japanese shorthand). Despite nearly two months of massive daily protests, the treaty was ultimately ratified and, fifty years later, still permits the United States to station nearly one hundred bases in Japan. Although largely forgotten today, the 1960 uprising was the defining event of postwar Japan. The onerous presence of a foreign military, fused with still-fresh traumatic memories of war, proved as crucial a catalyst to Japanese artists as apartheid has been to South African writers. 

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Although I made the film in 2009 and 2010, its genesis is my childhood in provincial Japan where I was raised the daughter of liberal American missionaries. For ten years, my family lived in the Inland Sea port, Hofu, situated 70 kilometers from the Iwakuni Marine Corps base and 120 kilometers from Hiroshima. Although I never visited either as a child, the U.S. military presence in Japan and the atomic bombs my country dropped on Japan have complicated my adult identification as an American, long after I moved to the U.S. to attend university and settle here in the late 1970s. 

Actually, the closest I ever got to Iwakuni were the Thanksgiving turkeys my father purchased annually at the base PX, but I can still taste my instinctive aversion to the military enclave and my smug disdain for the American children confined to base schools. My parents had made the unorthodox decision to home school my sisters and me in English while sending us to Japanese public schools and though I balked at the daily English vocabulary lists my mother piled on top of the relentless kanji tests at school, I knew I was being better educated than my unseen American peers. 


Hiroshima was another matter entirely. I was in the fourth grade—the only American in my class—when our teacher wrote the words “America” and “Atomic Bomb” in white chalk on the blackboard, and we opened our textbooks to the chapter titled “The Defeat.” All forty Japanese children turned around to stare at me. The moment is seared into my memory, more as an emotion than an image; though I no longer remember the shape of my wooden school desk, I can still trace the exact contours of my sense of entrapment. My country had done something unforgivable and I had to take responsibility for it, all by myself. I desperately wanted to dig a hole under my desk, escape my classmates’ mute disbelief and never have to face them again. 

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When I began subtitling films fifteen years ago, I immersed myself in Japanese cinematic depictions of the postwar era, curious to explore the context of my unusual childhood. Watching ominously titled films such as The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru), Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan), Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri) and Elegant Beast (Shitoyakana kedamono)—all produced in or shortly after 1960—it became clear to me that a different national trauma had unleashed this barrage of films by disparate filmmakers, seething with anguish, cynicism and rage. This revelation sent me to history books, where I read about the massive, tumultuous demonstrations that rocked Japan between May and June of 1960, after CIA-backed Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke (1896–1987) ordered the police to eject opposition members of parliament in order to force a vote to extend the security treaty—a strategy that was tantamount to a coup d’état. 

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Several years ago, an art-bookstore owner in Japan showed me a slim volume of photographs by Hamaya Hiroshi (1915–1999), titled Days of Rage and Grief (Ikari to kanashimi no kiroku), now long out of print. “This book is for you,” he said, unaware of my curiosity about the 1960 ANPO protests. The half-century-old images of ordinary Japanese citizens swamping the streets of Tokyo instantly captivated me. In Hamaya’s book, high-contrast black-and-white images of students, salary-men, “office ladies” and  laborers, their faces brimming with defiance and hope, gradually give way to scenes of chaos as the radical protesters’ frustration and fury provoke them to charge the police, who strike back without mercy. Somehow, Hamaya captured the moment that the body of Kanba Michiko, an idealistic Tokyo University student asphyxiated by police in the melee, was carried away by fellow students. (Image 6 grieving)The next day, as news of her death spread, grief and shock crumpled the youthful mourners’ faces. Several days later, Kishi formally ratified the treaty by means of an arcane parliamentary procedure, and the protests fizzled.


In 1960, Hamaya was a celebrated documentary photographer, the first Japanese member of Magnum Photo, the world’s most prestigious photo agency, a cooperative founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others in 1947; membership in it is by invitation-only. Although he had previously shunned political and social movements, Hamaya became obsessed with the drama unfolding in Tokyo as ordinary citizens poured into the streets in the month following the May 19 forced vote. Before the parliamentary chaos, demonstrations were mostly organized and attended by Japan’s Socialist and Communist parties and the powerful student and labor unions. (image 7 Time) Once Kishi’s ham-fisted tactics were broadcast on television, housewives, children and office workers overwhelmed the streets of Tokyo, spontaneously banding behind the banner “Voices of the Voiceless” as protesters from all over Japan traveled to join them. Always positioning himself in the center of the action, barely taking time to sleep, Hamaya captured the subjective experience of a people terrified of being sucked back into war by Kishi, a member of Tōjō’s cabinet who drove Japan to war and was back in charge, this time ramming through America’s agenda. (Image 8 wide) Looking at Hamaya’s 1960 photographs today, they seem to anticipate the riveting images Charles Moore would take for Life magazine during the 1963 Birmingham protests, when African Americans confronted police dogs and fire hoses to claim their rights. 

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In early 2007, during one of my frequent business trips back to Japan, I happened to be watching Sunday Morning Museum (Nichiyō bijutsukan), the urbane weekly art program on NHK television, when an astounding image appeared on the screen. In the center of a large oil painting, peasants pointed their beseeching gazes and outsized hands at impervious policemen while storm clouds gathered on the horizon. It was unlike any Japanese art I had ever seen. Dropping everything, I set off for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, where the painter’s first full retrospective, “Nakamura Hiroshi: Pictorial Disturbances 1953–2007” (“Nakamura Hiroshi: Zuga jiken 1953–2007”), was on view. The painting that propelled me to the museum, Sunagawa No.5 (Sunagawa goban), depicts the farmers who repeatedly clashed with the hundreds of riot police attempting to confiscate their ancestral lands to pave longer runways for the American military’s Tachikawa Air Base. In Nakamura’s depiction, the figures vault past their individual identities to become archetypal antagonists locked in the existential struggle between individual human rights and the power of the state. To ensure that I hadn’t hallucinated the spellbinding show, I bought ten reproduction postcards of the Sunagawa painting, and a copy of the catalogue. Leafing through the volume in the ensuing months, I found Nakamura’s images lodging in the same corner of my brain preoccupied with Hamaya’s photographs. Without fully realizing it, I had started musing about how to spin their art into a film.

Not long after my discoveries, I met with Dr. John W. Dower, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Embracing Defeat, who asked me to contribute a unit to Visualizing Cultures, the website he created to host “image-driven scholarship” about Japan in the modern world and early-modern China. I showed him Hamaya’s photos and Nakamura’s paintings and announced, “I want to do a unit on the art related to 1960 ANPO, but I’m going to make the film first.” Dr. Dower concurred and generously served as historical advisor to my film, escorting me through the tempestuous history of Japan in the 1950s I had only glimpsed in Japanese films.

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In 2008, I only knew about the two artists, but from the rich archive of strife-ridden postwar films, I had inklings there were more—I just had to find them. I began trolling the Internet for art related to ANPO, and within six months had acquired nearly one hundred Japanese art books. The only English-language publication we found was the one accompanying “Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan 1945–1965,” a 1985 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. The book features thirty-five artists, including Nakamura, Ikeda Tatsuo, Ishii Shigeo and Yamashita Kikuji, the four whose work I had already decided to feature in my film, along with Okamoto Tarō, Kikuhata Mokuma, Kawara On and many others for whom I could not find room.

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It was only after I finished the film in spring of 2010 that I learned about the catalogue for “Realism in Postwar Japan 1945–1960” (“Sengo Nihon no riarizumu 1945–1960”), an exhibition convened at the Nagoya City Museum in 1998. It was as comprehensive an assembly then possible of the realist art produced in the wake of that catastrophic war, chronologically presented from Japan’s defeat. Thumbing through more than four hundred images, I reflected on my good fortune to have been initially lured down the rabbit hole of this postwar art by Nakamura and Hamaya. If I had known of the vast archive awaiting me, I might not have summoned the courage to tackle a project of this scope and scale. As it turned out, the biggest challenge making ANPO: Art X War was piecing the prodigious trove into ninety coherent minutes.

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Once I began filming, I sought out Nakamura first. He told me he had frequently joined the 1955 Sunagawa protests, serving in his own mind as a “reporter at the front,” brandishing not a camera but sketchbook and pencil. Nevertheless, he had been intimidated by the raw energy of the often-violent confrontations that Kamei Fumio had filmed for his 1955 documentary, The Bloody Record of Sunagawa (Ryūketsu no kiroku: Sunagawa). After watching it, he had wondered, “How on earth am I going to match that realism in a painting?” He decided to compete with the impact of Kamei’s footage by inventing his own pictorial strategy, a “close-up” in his chosen two-dimensional art form. Inspired by the montage technique of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, he deliberately radicalized the law of perspective, painting not one, but four receding points, in order to train the viewer’s eye on the drama unfolding in its center. (Image 13 montage of 4 CUs) The elfin monk directly below the peasants’ “close-up” in that painting represents one point of his adroit artistic solution, a tribute to the stoic Nichiren-sect monks who rallied to the peasants’ cause to sustain the brunt of the police beatings. Nakamura also recalled how the originality and simplicity of Diego Rivera’s murals inspired him to conjure a socialist realism rooted in Japanese ethno-geography, distinct from European and Soviet realism. Today, his iconic painting is in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, while Kamei’s overtly propagandistic film languishes in obscurity, a cinematic footnote.

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Nakamura’s “Pictorial Disturbances” comprised some one hundred oil paintings and scores of magazine and book covers and posters. (Image 14 base and gunned) Two other iconic works in the exhibit were Gunned Down (Shasatsu) and The Base (Kichi). He had painted both in 1957, after an American soldier guarding a shooting range on the Somagahara U.S. Army Base, at the foot of Mount Fuji, deliberately shot and killed a local farmer’s wife. She had trespassed on the range to scavenge spent brass shell casings, useless to the American military, but which the woman could sell as scrap metal to buy food for her six hungry children. Although Nakamura had not witnessed the shooting, he worked from widely publicized media photographs, which had ignited his imagination and incensed the Japanese public to the point of threatening the security treaty, originally signed in 1951. After intense United States–Japan negotiations, the soldier was tried in a Japanese court, but served no time for his crime. Nakamura recalls how “conventional painting composition just wasn’t sufficient to deliver the message and the impact I wanted. So I used the ‘camera eye,’ meaning both still photographs and movies, to express my outrage.”  

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Nakamura’s deliberate rejection of both objectivity and conventional aesthetics was at the core of the Japanese “Reportage” movement, which inspired not only him, but thousands of “amateur” painters, recently liberated from the tyrannical drudgery of a war that had laid siege to their daily lives and blighted their imaginations. In Nakamura’s words, “Anyone who wanted to paint, including professionals, organized local Reportage groups. We called it Reportage for a reason. You would visit sites to create a documentary record of how you felt witnessing specific events.” He went on to wryly recollect, “You may laugh at me, but my intention was that a single painting could change the world, could actually change the people who saw it.” 

Reportage art, portraying resistance to the presence of American military bases, fallout from Pacific Ocean hydrogen-bomb testing and the grim working conditions and grinding poverty characteristic of Japan in the 1950s, never found a place in the commercial art world. Instead, it was exhibited to the general public in the intentionally jury-free annual “Independent Exhibit,” or the “Nippon Exhibit” (Nippon ten), sponsored by the Zenei Bijutsukai (Avant-Garde art association). Most of their creations are lost today, but several tenacious painters persisted, creating transcendent art, safely ensconced in museum storage, or languishing in boxes, still far from the public eye. To film an interview with Nakamura in front of The Base, painted on a sheet of plywood cracking with age, I had to arrange for it to be transported from storage at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and temporarily hung on a wall in the museum.

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Ikeda Tatsuo, another emblematic Reportage painter, became an artist to liberate his fate. When he was just 16, the Japanese Navy had ordered him to become a Kamikaze pilot. Although Japan’s defeat spared him from a suicidal mission, after the war, U.S. occupation policy forced him to resign from a teaching school because he was an ex-Kamikaze. He resolved to study art and joined an avant-garde art study group, where he learned, “art and politics and social issues are all related.” He continues to paint today and I interviewed him in his modest artist’s studio in the woods one hour north of Tokyo.

(Image 17 The Haul) In the summer of 1952, Ikeda spent one week in Uchinada, a fishing village on the Japan Sea, joining sit-ins by protesting fishermen and interviewing them about their cause. The U.S. military had seized their beaches, converting them into a firing range to test made-in-Japan cannon shells for the Korean War. The local fishermen, who promptly lost their catch and their livelihoods were irate, but the men who owned and leased their fishing boats collaborated for compensation. Ikeda rendered their conflicting circumstances in the ink drawings, Fishermen’s Boss-Uchinada series (anp1004) and The Haul-Uchinada series (anp1010). To Ikeda, newly awakened to Marxist ideas, their contrasting positions corresponded to the smug capitalist, hanging himself with his own greed and the downtrodden worker, cross-eyed from fruitless labor. 

(Image 18 portrait) Choosing an artist’s life, unfettered by superiors, Ikeda also doomed himself to poverty; to the art market, his Reportage drawings were as negligible as Nakamura’s oil paintings. To survive, Ikeda joined the ranks of artists paid by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War to paint portraits of themselves, their wives, girlfriends or children, before heading off to a bloody war they knew they might not survive. (During the Korean War, which began in 1950 and remains suspended by the 1953 armistice, over 40,000 U.S. soldiers, and an estimated two million civilians lost their lives.) The Portrait is Ikeda’s “silk-rubbed” scroll painting of a serviceman’s girlfriend, which he based on a snapshot. Ikeda surmises today, “We could transform a black and white photo into a color painting. They could roll it open and display it on the wall. It was very Japanese and must have been exotic.” Ikeda’s uncanny rendering of the green-eyed blond remains in his possession only because the soldier who commissioned it never returned to purchase and claim it. Ikeda asserts, “More than anything I’m anti-war. The Korean War was a foreign war but I felt it was inevitable that Japan would get dragged into it, and that’s what I was terrified of.”

(Image 19 barracks) Given Ikeda’s own experience in the wartime military, he was especially sensitive to the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in his country, even after the occupation had officially ended. In American soldier, Child, Barracks (anp1002) Ikeda allegorized the trying predicament many Japanese young women faced in the postwar. Their homes incinerated by firebombs and bereft of older brothers and fathers to provide for them, many had no choice but to solicit their occupiers for financial support–for themselves and their dependents. Ikeda’s depiction of the captive woman’s ambivalence, torn between abject gratitude and eviscerating humiliation towards her foreign provider, endures as a potent metaphor for Japan’s precarious postwar relationship with America. 

(Image 20 10,000 count) In March of 1954, the Japanese tuna fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5 was exposed to nuclear fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll, located between Hawaii and Japan. Six months later, the ship’s radioman died from acute radiation poisoning. The still vivid trauma of being the world’s sole atomic-bombed country, fused with gnawing anxiety that the entire Pacific catch had been irradiated, erupted into a groundswell of anti-nuclear protests; in that year alone, a petition banning nuclear weapons was signed by over thirty million people, over half of Japan’s adult population. Recalling the toxic fish being dumped from fishing vessels, Ikeda declares, “I didn’t join the demonstrations. I wanted to express myself as a painter, to express my protest that way.” The tons of polluted fish summoned Ikeda’s baleful, anthropomorphic fish in 10,000 Count and Buried Fish, along with the fictional monster, Godzilla. The original Japanese film, produced in 1954, was a direct response to the Lucky Dragon #5 fiasco, replete with overtly political jabs at nuclear weapons. A commuter wryly quips about “surviving the atomic bomb only to be menaced by Godzilla” and obstreperous housewives exhort politicians to reveal the true extent of the radiation. 

The staggering irony, of course, is that the U.S. response to the Japanese public’s nuclear weapons allergy was to promote the sale of nuclear power plants in the “Atoms for Peace” campaign, targeting Japan first. In the words of the Atomic Energy Commissioner, "Now, while the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain so vivid, construction of a nuclear power plant in a country like Japan would be a dramatic and Christian gesture which could lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage of those cities." Six decades and fifty nuclear power plants later, the tsunami struck northeastern Japan, where Japanese politicians have been content to segregate many of the plants supplying Tokyo with power.

(Image 21 Yamashita & owl)) Speaking of the surreal, Yamashita Kikuji (1919–1986) was another major Reportage artist who had studied under Fukuzawa Ichirō (1898–1992), who in turn was deeply influenced by European surrealists Max Ernst, Giorgio De Chirico and Salvador Dalí. In 1939, Yamashita was already a promising artist when he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army and sent to fight in China. There, he witnessed and sketched scenes from the front, including dozens of pencil drawings of “comfort women.” Several of those sketches are reproduced in Yamashita Kikuji (1996), the publication accompanying his retrospective that toured regional Japanese museums ten years after his death. Plagued by a physical ailment, Yamashita had spent many days in the infirmary, adjacent to the women’s quarters. Preserved in his native prefecture’s Tokushima Art Museum, these rare drawings are devastating precisely because they are imbued not with the “realism” of a photographic camera, but with the artist’s obvious empathy for the unspeakable conditions his subjects, as he, had no choice but to endure. The museum gift shop sells reproductions of the sketches as gift cards, but I was told sales have never been brisk.

(Image 22 Akebono) Although Yamashita remains obscure, he has acquired a measure of distinction for his macabre work, The Story of Akebono Village (Akebonomura monotagari, 1953). It is an apparition in red and black, in which a gigantic boar and anthropomorphic foxes flank a grandmother who has hanged herself to evade thugs unleashed by the landlord to evict her from a squalid farmhouse. In the foreground, a man lies in a blood-soaked pond. Yamashita had traveled to the remote village at the behest of the Cultural Brigade of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which had instructed him to make a kamishibai (a story related in a dozen or so storyboards and recited narration) depicting the besieged villagers’ plight. Yamashita never delivered the kamishibai, conjuring instead a painting hailed as a modern surrealist masterpiece when it showed in the “Avant-garde Artists of Japan 1910–1970” Paris exhibition at the Pompidou Center in 1986. Tragically, the artist passed away a few weeks shy of his first international exhibition and acclaim. A quarter of a century later, he has yet to achieve the prominence he deserves in his native country; decades after he parted ways with the JCP, he never wavered from his commitment to taboo themes.

(Image 23 New Japan) I had been steered to Yamashita’s surreal and uncompromising aesthetic by Sawaragi Noi, an independent curator I consulted when researching ANPO: Art X War. After perusing Yamashita’s sumptuous catalogue raisonné, posthumously produced by Nihon Gallery in Tokyo, which has represented him since 1963, I decided to open my film with The Tale of New Japan (Shin Nihon monogatari), which he created on the heels of Akebono Village. (These were the two works the independent curator Hariu Ichirō selected to represent Yamashita’s work at the Pompidou in 1986 under the rubric Realism and Political Movements. Hariu also chose Nakamura’s Sunagawa No. 5.)

I found The Tale of New Japan carefully stored in a custom-made box in Yamashita’s gallery, which retains many of his most important work. The gallery owner explained, “They’re in my safekeeping, until I find an institution that will permanently exhibit them, not hide them in storage.” On the large canvas, a cross-eyed pug, her lips glistening scarlet, is strung up by a monster of indeterminate origin that clutches her bangs and tail in its iron grip, its tongue drooping lasciviously over his high-heeled detainee. Behind them, English-language signs point to “Hotel Candle,” “Mobile Home” and “Pacific Heights.” To amplify his metaphor, Yamashita stamped the captive canine “Yellow Stool.” 

(Image 24 wife)  It is difficult to appreciate the genesis of his ferocious vision without knowing how profoundly Yamashita was haunted by his childhood and his experience of war. To find out, I interviewed his widow, Atsuko, past eighty, still obviously besotted with the man who had married her: “I was a bird-lover and an orphan,” she told me. “Those were his conditions for a bride. I had pet birds, too, so I loved birds.” After they married, the Yamashitas were notorious among their clique of bohemian artists for the flock of barred owls that shared their home, visible today in black-and-white photographs and documentary footage, peering down from the rafters or balanced on Yamashita’s shoulder, watching him paint. 

Mrs. Yamashita told me how her husband had been raised in a remote village in northern Tokushima, which bordered a community of outcasts, burakumin. “Even as a child, he knew that they were being mistreated and discriminated against. His mother was quite unusual, and she would exchange friendly greetings with the burakumin, visiting them from time to time.” Given his conscious distaste for bigotry, he found the totalitarian nature of Japan’s imperial army excruciating. When I asked her if he had talked about his three years in China, Atsuko told me, “He didn’t talk about it much, but he would cry out from his nightmares at night. He sounded like he was in such pain that I used to wake him. He didn’t tell me directly, but in 1970, he published an article, ‘A Peephole onto Discrimination.’ In it, he wrote about how he had executed a prisoner of war in a very brutal fashion. It made me heartsick.” I had discovered his original text in a modest 1979 publication about the painter titled Sinking Swamp (Kuzureru numa), excerpted as follows, and recited by an actor in my film: “I can never forget the day that we buried alive and tortured to death a Chinese prisoner. I had become an animal masquerading as a human being, capable of committing savage acts, but unable to see my own savagery.” Atsuko concluded my interview saying, “He deeply regretted the fact that he couldn’t give his own life by refusing that order. He wanted to take responsibility for what he had done. That became the driving force behind his paintings.” 

(Image 25 Deification) Yamashita’s catalogue raisonné makes clear that wartime memories had infected his artistic vision long before his public confession. In Deification of a Soldier (Matsurawareru senshi, 1967), the eye sockets of a skull perched over a two-headed horse seemingly peer up at its helmet, but their gaze cannot look out, only inward, as if imprisoned by memories. After the 1960 protests, which both Nakamura and Yamashita vigorously supported, both painters turned away from artistically “reporting” actual events. In 1962, Yamashita titled one painting Alienation. His work became increasingly eerie and abstract, evolving toward a singular surrealism: a kind of Reportage, but now epistles from the desolate terrain of the perpetrator’s cursed heart. 

(Image 26 Ishii) Ishii Shigeo became a Reportage painter, not by traveling to remote villages and demonstrations but by exploring his country’s uneasy subconscious. Hobbled by debilitating asthma after a nearly fatal childhood attack, Ishii studied classical painting as a teenager but developed a distinct style of social critique in his oil paintings and etchings through his association with Ikeda Tatsuo, Nakamura Hiroshi and other Reportage and avant-garde painters. Conflating his own excruciating affliction with his country’s postwar predicament, Ishii, who died at 28 in 1962, left behind a large body of work still mostly neglected. 

(Image 27 Gun Trader) Because Ishii’s father was a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance with a secure salary, Ishii’s mother was able to nurse her frail, wheezing son, providing him with art lessons to compensate for the formal education his illness frequently absented him from and pay for his art supplies as his talent and passion for his increasingly morose vision became apparent. A voracious reader, his younger sister remembers Ishii reading the entire newspaper everyday in grade school. “He was the first to go and get the newspaper. I think he had his antennae out, waiting for information.” His friend Ikeda Tatsuo recalls,  “When I got to know him, he had a nihilistic way of talking and an ironic smile. But he was always making remarks that were right on target. He was only 20 years old, but he’d already read Jean Genet and used to quote him.” His older brother remembers Ishii’s bookshelf “lined with Japanese translations of Sartre and Camus.”

(Images 28 montage of 4) Ishii’s dominant works belong to a series of over fifteen paintings he produced between 1955 and 1957, which he collectively titled Violence. The series includes Judgment, The Room, Under Martial Law III, The Trap, Fissure . Some of the works are highly allegorical but his intention was to map the basic contradictions of postwar Japan – the humiliation of occupation, collusion in a neighboring war, political entrapment, and social inequality. The artist delineated his unambiguous artistic mission in a brief essay he wrote in 1957.  “The force driving any individual attempting to create a work of art in our modern world must be his desire to revolt against the inhumane mechanism of his society in order to transform it; without that craving it is impossible to create art.”

(Image 29 Kishi CU) In several works, Ishii set his sights on a specific target, such as the war profiteers in Unidentified (Bound Men). Though Ishii never named the fat-lipped, large-eared man who looms over Decoy, it is likely he wanted viewers to imagine it was Kishi Nobusuke, the prime minister who had presided over the extension of the U.S. Japan security treaty in 1960. In an essay he published in the Association of Avant-garde Art journal in 1961, shortly before his death, he had referred to Kishi’s forced ratification of the ANPO treaty as “the perfect crime.” 

(Image 30 firebomb) Over the course of several interviews, I had asked Nakamura Hiroshi about his memories of the war, which ended when he was twelve, when I had first interviewed him in 2008 to prepare a trailer for my film. “I remember the fire bombings extremely well,” he told me. He recalled watching the bombs incinerate his native Hamamatsu overnight, “leaving the whole city burned to the ground. There was nothing left. You know those photographs of the ruins of Hiroshima, it actually looked a lot like that. I really can’t believe I’m still alive today. Those bombs are really bad for your heart.” In 1960, Nakamura painted Leaping Samurai (Samurai no hikō), foregrounding a beheaded medieval warrior, plunging behind his horse, also topsy-turvy, while a citadel of power looms unscathed behind the doomed pair. The millions of his fellow protesters who quickly abandoned their resistance once the treaty passed had disgusted Nakamura. (Image 31 Omens CU) For the next several years, all his paintings were suffused with fantastical crimson clouds and landscapes. Having abandoned depicting unfolding events, he, too, stumbled on a type of Reportage—communiqués from the terrorized firebombing survivor’s post-traumatic heart. When I asked him why his paintings suddenly turned red in 1961, Nakamura confided, “I doubt I would have made paintings with bright red clouds if I hadn’t lived through the firebombing. I think I was traumatized by the war and the fear.”

(Image 31 Castle) When I was initially introduced to Nakamura by the curator who had helped organize “Pictorial Disturbances,” before I could even sit down, the effusive painter burst out, “There was a civil war raging back then.” I asked him to hold his thoughts until we had the camera set up, when he continued, “Things aren’t so orderly that after a war you automatically have peace. It’s not that clean. You can’t skip what comes between war and peace. They say there never was a civil war in Japan, but I actually believe there was one, right after the war.” He went on to elaborate, “There was also the dilemma that Japan had been the perpetrator, but is now acting like it was the victim. The contradiction of not knowing whether you’re a victim or a perpetrator—I think that was part of our civil war. As an artist, I had a right and a responsibility to represent that.” 

(Image 32 sinking dog) “Put a lid on what stinks” (Kusai mono ni futa) was arguably Japan’s favorite aphorism of the Showa period that ended in 1989. Indeed, Japan is often criticized for its inability to face its war-era atrocities, and the turbulent postwar “civil war” has mostly been expunged from public memory, along with the 1960 uprising. Yet, Yamashita, Nakamura and Hamaya, along with scores of fellow artists, deliberately sought out the whiff of resistance and the stench of smothered history, transfiguring them into daunting, unforgettable art. Although most museums and the commercial world of art shunned their work, several resolute artists refused to quit. Condemning themselves to the margins of the art world, they bided their time and kept on painting. A few were fortunate enough to be rediscovered and championed by a new generation of curators ignorant of the strife their parents had survived. Although many of these works of art are now in museum collections, they are seldom exhibited. If I had not stumbled upon Nakamura’s Sunagawa #5 on NHK that Sunday morning, or gotten a tip from a sympathetic book dealer, I too, might have remained oblivious to this vast, precious reservoir of art, a stunning alternative to the history of Japan we think we already know. 

(Image 33 peering eye) ANPO: Art X War was theatrically released in 15 cities in Japan in the fall of 2010. Six months later, I was invited to spend a week teaching the film to students at the American School in Tokyo. Our plane was one hour away from landing when the pilot announced, “There’s been a major earthquake in Japan and Narita is shut down.”  It was March 11th, 2011. I could never have imagined I would arrive to witness Japan’s greatest postwar disaster or the resonances my film would assume in its wake. 

Our plane finally landed at Chitose airport, in southern Hokkaido, although the pilot had mentioned the U.S. Air Force base Misawa as a possible candidate. The American School temporarily closed and canceled my classes, but I decided to stay to witness my beloved country flail with nuclear anxiety as the aftershocks persisted. I also wanted to honor my promises to attend screenings of my film in Tokyo, Nagoya and the Hong Kong Film Festival. The Tokyo screening, held one week later, was packed and the discussion after the screening lasted 3 hours. At first members of the audience raised their hands to ask me questions, but it soon felt more like a town hall meeting as everyone shared their fear and anger at the obviously inept government response to the catastrophes. The huge anti-nuclear power demonstrations hadn't started yet, but the rage and impotence of the 1960 demonstrators no longer felt like something out of the past. Viewing my film in Hong Kong, I was least prepared for my own post- 3/11 reaction to a sequence near its end. (Image 34 Kazama) Kazama Sachiko, a woodblock printmaker in her in her thirties, is seated in front of her large, meticulously rendered manga-esque print of a railroad train-headed monster titled “Manchurian Railroad Man,” and addresses the camera: “My father marched as a student in 1960 and raised me to distrust the government. The key phrase I’m interested in right now is “kimin” (棄民). It means a people abandoned by their country. It’s quite obvious that in the history of modern Japan, the goal of politics has been to protect the state and the national polity, not the people of Japan.”  

I had interviewed Kazama in 2009 and edited the sequence into the film’s ending in 2010, impressed that an artist her age could succinctly articulate and identify with the predicament of her grandparents’ generation. In the wake of World War II, Kimin had been used to refer to the millions of Japanese peasants abandoned in what had been dubbed “Manchuria” by the Japanese government, which had lured them there before the war with promises of land-stakes in “paradise.” Kazama believes the term should also be applied to the never-compensated Japanese citizens sacrificed by the government to firebombs during WWII, as well to those stranded by Japan’s attenuated economic downturn today. Certainly neither of us could have conceived, that in the wake of a millennial tsunami, kimin would regain currency to depict the plight of the tens of thousands of remote village residents, left to fend for themselves by their central government. 

In a fundamental irony, the artwork in ANPO: Art X War has been faring much better these days. (Image 35 Sunagawa) Last October, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo opened an exhibition titled Art Will Thrill You: The Essence of Modern Japanese Art, a survey of the best modern art in the past century. In a special section, called Experimental Ground 1950s, dozens of the paintings and photographs I featured in my film were at long last pulled out of their storage boxes and installed on the walls, filling the entire first floor of the museum. Walking through the exhibit last December, looking at the familiar artist's names and their iconic works, I found it hard to keep a smile off my face. All the months I was researching for my film, I knew I had stumbled on world-class art. And here was my proof, in the art lining the walls of the National Museum of Modern Art. 

(Image 36 Ikeda rooster) The Museum of Modern Art in New York was just a few weeks behind. Last November, MoMA opened Tokyo 1955 - 1970: A New Avant-Garde, featuring the work of the radical art movements based in Tokyo during those years. (Image 36 10,000 count) Walking into the first large room of that exhibit filled with paintings by Nakamura, Yamashita, Ishii and Ikeda, I recalled the night when ANPO was screened at MoMA in February, 2011, as part of their Documentary Fortnight series. For a moment, I imagined that the film had come to life and the paintings had sauntered off the screen, hopped onto the enormous freight elevator and climbed up onto the gallery walls, all of their own accord. Of course art exhibits actually take a great deal of planning and logistics and the MoMA curator Doryun Chong was kind enough to credit my film with greatly expanding his knowledge of Japanese art from the 1950s. 

(Image 37 Hamaya students) And now, even Hamaya Hiroshi, the outraged photographer, whose book launched my film, is finally getting his due. The Getty Museum just opened an exhibit featuring his images, including those from the demonstrations in 1960. My fundamental goal in making this film was to restore these artists to their proper place in the history of modern art. Although I shy away from the military associations of the phrase "mission accomplished," I hope you'll forgive me if I bask a little in their newfound glory.