MoMA's Smart Survey of Postwar Japanese Art Reveals Cinema's "Other Avant Garde"

Tateishi Koichi, "Samurai, the Watcher," 1965, oil on canvas (detail)
(© Estate of Tiger Tateishi; Courtesy the National Museum of Art, Osaka)

“Tokyo 1955-1970,” the current sixth-floor exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is subtitled “A New Avant-Garde,” and, as rich and strange and garish as the show is, I’m inclined to call it “an Other Avant-Garde.” Trauma is indistinguishable from liberation. Science fiction rules. (It reminds me of Robert Smithson’s fondness for the Museum of Natural History where, he wrote, “the time states of ‘1984’ are mixed with those of ‘One Million BC.’”) The show’s two poles are the mutant and the primordial; its operating principle, for reception even more than production, would seem to be creative misunderstanding.

It’s astonishing to see postwar Japanese artists assimilating a half century of European vanguardism and coming up with analogs to Mad cartoonist Basil Wolverton (Tatsuo Ikeda) or assemblages evoking the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (Tetsumi Kudo), updating traditional Japanese practices as Miró-elegant modern art (Sadamasa Motonaga’s enameled stones) or trumping the East Village by 30 years with auto-slide projections (Sh?z? Kitadai’s table-top epic “Another World”). The cinematic equivalent is the great Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, who died last week at age 80. (You can find my colleague Graham Fuller’s obit here.)


According to film theorist and creative “misunderstandder” Noël Burch, Oshima was the first self-consciously avant-garde filmmaker in Japanese history. Be that as it may, Oshima was a great filmmaker and a life-long radical provocateur who was confined by no particular style — he had many. Only a few of Oshima’s 20-odd features were included in the MoMA complementary show of Japanese independent and underground cinema, but they were characteristic and choice. Most have already screened but there’s still time to catch “Band of Ninja” (a.k.a. “Manual of Ninja Arts”), Oshima’s 1967 unique experiment in ultra pragmatic anime, screening Thursday, January 24, at 6:45 p.m.

Unable to fund a live-action version of Sanpei Shirato’s epic manga, published in 17 volumes between 1959 and 1962 during the very period of the polarizing Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, Oshima photographed Shirato’s crude kinetic panels (energetic drawings, many softened by a smudgy wash reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s early Dick Tracy paintings). He then added character voiceovers, as well as an intermittent benshi-style narrator and cartoon sound effects, to create a symphony of non-stop static action. The montage results in long passages of near-abstract mayhem while movement is largely confined to the occasional passing of a long scroll before the camera.

The film’s narrative, which concerns the ninja leader of a 16th-century peasant revolt and his prolonged campaign against a warlord nemesis, is quickly subsumed in a welter of characters, many of whom practice the “art of doubling” or shape-shifting. Replete with extended flashbacks, the convoluted saga encompasses plagues, famines, and droughts, as many instances of mass carnage that might well have been unwatchable — or, indeed, unstageable — as photographic cinema.

Still, however confusing the plot, the “historical materialism” that infused Shirato’s manga and endeared it to the radical students of the ’60s is a constant. “Band of Ninja” manages to cram a half dozen battles into its final two minutes to end with the New Left exhortation that “The People Will Keep Fighting!” It’s a true tour de force: Lines on paper have seldom seemed so violent.

Read more J. Hoberman in Movie Journal.