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Ambiguous Deco: A Presentation on the Traditional and Modern in 1930s Japanese Film

One of the featured works in Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945, a recent exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute and circulating across the United States, is a traditional men’s overcoat that covertly features a recreation of an advertisement for Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings woven into the textile. The energy and modernity of Hollywood infuses many of the pieces in this collection, most notably in its ephemera, so it is intuitive that a discussion about the relationship of cinema to the Art Deco movement in Japan enhances the exhibition experience.

Peter L. Doebler, doctoral candidate at the Graduate Theological Union, presented “‘I Was Modern, But…’ Tradition and Innovation in 1930s Japanese Film” in January 2015, providing a concise introductory overview of Japanese films of the 1930s within the context of the social, political and cultural movements intrinsic to the objects of the Deco Japan collection. Doebler separated the talk into sections built around representative films: Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), Mikio Naruse’s No Blood Relation (1932) and Yasujiro Ozu’s I was Born But… (1932). Themes of modern women, transportation and the cultured home found throughout the exhibition were applied to each of the three works to highlight the convergence of tradition and modernity in Japan during the period.

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Hisamaro (dates unknown). Songbook for “From Nihonbashi” (Nihonbashi kara), 1931. Color lithograph, inks on paper. Published by Hakubi Shuppansha. Printed by Kishimoto Fukutaro, Tokyo.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor, Shimizu’s (at times, tawdry) melodrama shares characteristics with the American women’s pictures of the early 1930s. The pull of a young woman between customary responsibilities and contemporary freedoms is heightened for maximum drama; lead character Sunako falls from schoolgirl to lover to prostitute in the course of 71 minutes. She is representative of moga, modern girls with short hair and bright lips latched on a cigarette associated with the flapper (a more heightened version of this woman is central to Naruse’s No Blood Relation, as well). This female image defines much of the Deco Japan collection, not just on mass produced matchbooks or sheet music, but upon more sophisticated media like woodblock or canvas. As Doebler noted in his prepared remarks, however, Sunako might not fully embrace the modern life: though her Louise Brooks bob speaks to the modern, she always remains, ambiguously, in a kimono.

Uncertainty clouds the ending of the Japanese Girls, too, as Sunako departs on a ship, headed towards an unclear future. Doebler reflected that transportation in films of the 1930s can frequently underscore the positive and negative of Japanese culture. The Shimizu work begins and ends with ocean liners, a suggestion that society is fluid, constantly in flux. Naruse’s No Blood Relation is likewise bookended with ships. The voyages of its central character Tamae, a successful actress who returns from Hollywood at the onset of the film, indicate both the threats of foreign lands and the opportunities of independence. Additional innovations in transportation were discussed across the three films, including the advances in rail technologies that enabled the suburban backdrop of I was Born But… and the frequently foreboding use of automobiles in No Blood Relation. Of the three topics considered during Doebler’s lecture, the meaning of transportation in both the Deco Japan exhibit and the cinema of the period, was the most surprising and promising for further contemplation.

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Satomi Munetsugu (1904-1996), Poster for Japan, Japanese Government Railways, 1937, color lithograph on paper, 99 x 63.5 cm, Robert and Mary Levenson Collection.

The cultured home of upper middle-class Japanese families is stressed in the Deco Japan collection; an entire room within the exhibition is devoted to housewares and pieces that, while not mass produced, were not necessarily one-of-a-kind works, either. These objects, sometimes ornamental, practical or both, may have been owned by a financially successful woman like Tamae in No Blood Relation but were likely aspirational pieces for families like the Yoshis of I was Born But… In Ozu’s early comedy, the two sons of an office clerk are embarrassed to discover their admired father acts as a clown to his boss and rebel against him when they perceive his lack of authority. Of course, the children do not understand that the adult world built around power through wealth operates with rules different than their youthful hierarchies. The model that creates the salary man Kennosuke Yoshi also forwards the expression of Art Deco through the applied arts desired by the middle class. Doebler observed, though, that these same standards undermine the traditional patriarchal family structure in the Ozu film: modern life entertains and provides just as it humiliates.

All three films examined in Peter Doebler’s presentation resound with the expressions of modern life revealed in the Deco Japan exhibition. Unlike many of the displayed objects, however, the works of Ozu, Shimizu and Naruse resonate with intriguing ambiguity. Conflict found in the cinema supplements other artistic statements of Art Deco in Japan and further stresses the rapid social, technological and political change of the era. The influences of film upon the works in the collection cannot be overlooked. Obviously, World War II brings a terrifying halt to the era and it is tempting to let the mass conflict comprehensively dictate understanding of the era in hindsight (after all, militaristic themes are beneath the surface of many films of the 1930s). The ellipses of I was Born But… may invoke the coming turmoil but they might additionally suggest the search for a modern Japanese identity evidenced in the Deco Japan collection and its contemporary films.

*The Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 exhibition closes on January 25, 2015 at the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio, USA. It opens at Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah, on February 7, 2015. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), Mikio Naruse’s No Blood Relation (1932) and Yasujiro Ozu’s I was Born But… (1932) are available on DVD from the Criterion Collection and streaming on Hulu Plus.

Pictured on the left: Artist unknown. Songbook for “Song of the Milky Way” (Ginga no uta) from the Sho-chiku film Milky Way (Ginga). 1931. Color lithograph, inks on paper. Published by Sho-chiku kinema gakufu shuppansha. Printed by Noguchi Tsurukichi.