Friday, 22 October 2021

City’s battered but defiantly unbowed

City’s battered but defiantly unbowed

Tokyo: Art & Photography | Ashmolean Museum, Oxford | Until January 3

HAS any major world city ever been so battered as Tokyo?

From the earliest days earthquakes, fires and typhoons have repeatedly assaulted it, while the 1945 firebombing — the single most destructive aerial raid in history — killed 83,000 and left 1.5 million homeless.

Yet Tokyo has always demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for self-regeneration. What was once a fishing village called Edo (meaning “estuary”) is now the world’s largest metropolitan area, with 37 million people.

Two exhibits at the start of the Ashmolean’s Tokyo: Art & Photography exhibition neatly illustrate the point: a compact, orderly 18th century map sits alongside a 21st century diorama of multiple overlapping photos of a place which is almost impossibly crammed.

Even before this introduction, the visitor approaches through a foyer completely surrounded by panels of cherry blossoms, in bloom and fallen to the ground.

Such images, so identified with Japan and its art, combine fragile beauty with transience. And these qualities, together with some darker notes, are threaded through what is the Ashmolean’s first major exhibition since the start of the pandemic last year.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s famous woodblock images from the 19th century show a city framed by cherry blossom or maple leaves. In one, the just visible grain of the wood beautifully suggests the imminence of rain.

Another, showing people huddled under umbrellas while crossing a bridge, was so admired by Van Gogh that he produced his own version.

If Hiroshige’s pictures are backward-looking and deceptively tranquil (the city had recently survived a major earthquake), later prints and photographs celebrate modernity, from inter-war department stores to transport systems to the Tokyo Tower modelled on the Parisian original.

Others depict a more sombre side to urban life, whether in the tents of the homeless thrown out of employment when the economic bubble burst in the Nineties or the recent “Moré Moré Tokyo” (literally “leaky, leaky Tokyo”) images by photographer Mohri Yuko showing water damage on the city’s underground, the result of constant earth tremors.

The reality of this threat emerges in a quote in the lavish exhibition catalogue from Machido Kumi, a contemporary artist here represented by the faintly unsettling image called “Three Persons”.

Kumi says: “When I travel to Europe, I always think to myself before going to sleep that tonight, I will not die in an earthquake.’’

But Tokyo is a place of pleasure as well as peril.

The city’s famous “love hotels” originated in the early Sixties, and were not that disreputable since they were intended for couples desperate to escape large families living under small roofs.

Here are photographs of the ornate hotel bedrooms, while nearby are earlier, discreetly erotic woodblock images of the “floating world”, the poetic Japanese term for the hedonistic culture of the city.

Other exhibits in the “Innovations” section show the influence of pop art, psychedelia and graffiti.

Street life, agitation and protest are part of the urban fabric too, including some satirical pictorial swipes at the displaced 2020 Olympics with which Tokyo: Art & Photography was planned to coincide.

It is a tribute to the curators of this exhibition, Lena Fritsch and Clare Pollard, that the delays and frustrations of a year have been so triumphantly overcome.

And at a moment where travel has become so problematic, this splendid Ashmolean show offers the imagination a journey through a metropolis so sizeable and various that it almost defies comprehension.

Philip Gooden

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