Water Children. Directed by Aliona van der Horst. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 75 minutes.
ANPO: Art X War. Directed by Linda Hoaglund, 2010. 89 minutes.1
The two films presented in this review seem to share much in common, as they both concern modern/contemporary art in Japan. Yet in many ways, they could not be more different. Aliona van der Horst’s Water Children (or The White Maze, as it is titled in Japanese) is a film with nostalgic air to it, looking into Tomoko Mukaiyama’s contemporary art project installed in northern Japan during the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field of 2009, while Linda Hoaglund’s film ANPO: Art X War presents a point of view that gives the arts a political and social role concerning and responding to historical events, such as the Asia-Pacific War and its memory in Japan, as well as Japan’s relationship with the United States.
Van der Horst’s film is the story of Mukaiyama, a gifted Japanese pianist, composer, and visual artist living and performing in Europe, who created wasted, a multimedia project that consists of an installation made up of 12,000 translucent white silk dresses stained with menstrual blood and suspended vertically overhead within a large warehouse, which creates a religious, cathedral-like atmosphere. The installation is shown through long scenes in which the camera moves through the light-colored cloth and light-washed path, directing the viewer’s gaze to rise above, and moving slowly into the installation’s heart. The soundtrack reveals Mukaiyama’s skillful piano playing, alone and in concerts, and her extraordinary composed pieces give a special aura to the film. Beyond music and the installation, there are numerous interviews with women in the immediate community of Echigo-Tsumari, with those who took part in the project, and with men—some are partners of the women interviewed and others are visitors to the installation.
As the story unfolds, the viewer understands that the meeting point between van der Horst and Mukaiyama is their personal mourning over the lost ability to bear a child, which is signified through the exposure of the menstrual blood, a natural process which is seldom referred to in public, mostly kept as a personal secret. The exposure of the feminine blood, the conversation about it, and the impact of this open act and discussion on the participants and viewers alike stand at the center of Mukaiyama’s art project, and ultimately, at van der Horst’s film. The term “water children” is borrowed from the Japanese mizuko (水子), which refers to the memorial stone sculptures in the form of Jizo (the Bodhisattva in charge of children protection, and the safeguard of those en route), covered with a red hat and red apron. These figures are often placed in Buddhist temples’ yards in memory of miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, and even the death of newborn babies and young children. This practice has become more ubiquitous in recent decades, but it reflects a tradition in which women were expected to induce abortion by entering a cold river, hoping the flowing water would help take the unwanted pregnancy away. Van der Horst follows some participants in the mizuko kuyō (水子供養) ceremony and visits several temples where she has conversations with parents coming back to lead ceremonies to commemorate their loss. In my view, this is where the film falls into simple exotica and fails to keep its focus on Mukaiyama’s artistry. The religious/anthropological sections turn the director into a tourist, with a non-professional “anthropological” point of view, fascinated by the customs of the Other, but lacking a critical sense of the broader context and circumstances of women and family life in Japan. The choice of a different title in Japanese (The White Maze) may indicate that putting the practice of mizuko at the center of a film that primarily looks into an artist’s music and visual practice may spell some problematic issues concerning the Euro-American gaze toward Japan. Moreover, this kind of sentimentality, tinted with romantic approaches, may be seen as an idealization of Japan. On the other hand, more personal and firsthand experience is present in the dialogue between van der Horst and Mukaiyama and in the way the viewer is exposed to their individual dilemmas that are at the core of this film.
ANPO: Art X War examines art in the 1950s and 1960s responding to the Asia-Pacific War (1931-45) and the subsequent American occupation of Japan (1945-52)—two long events that cast dark shadows of fear and anxiety about the future of the islands after the country’s surrender and defeat in war, as well as from the experience of being subjugated to military control over civil society. Hoaglund’s film courageously faces the atrocities and personal stories from a political point of view that foregrounds images and monologues by the different artists and that arises from the works of art themselves without erasing or circumventing the harsh realities they discuss and display. The film starts with the images of the events of May-June 1960 related to the civil upheaval concerning the government’s attempt to uncritically continue the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (ANPO in Japanese). The public’s rage and anger against the police, government, and prime minister Kishi Nobusuke (grandfather of Japan’s current prime minister Abe Shinzō) escalated into huge-scale demonstrations that flooded the country and are engraved in Japanese public memory as a peak of political tensions between the government and citizens. The art produced before and after these events, and their massive impact on individual creators, is at the heart of the film. The ANPO demonstrations were also the embarking point of the avant-garde movement in Japan during the 1960s, with many art groups, film directors, extreme theatre groups, and dance companies taking their inspiration from this unique moment of protest.
Hoaglund highlights a plethora of works of art and memorable, emotional interviews with the artists and creators who share their personal experience of that time and comment on how the turmoil influenced and shaped their approach to art. This is an insightful exploration into one of the toughest moments in Japan’s postwar history through memories of the war period and the American occupation, which became moments of crisis, frustration, and repressed feelings of loss that found their outlet through the ANPO demonstrations of 1960. Hoaglund did a thorough job in researching and pointing out the most significant figures in the art world—including painters, sculptors, photographers, and filmmakers—to testify about the events and elaborate the importance of these events, and through the film Hoaglund shows how these artists have influenced the course of contemporary Japanese art from that point onward.
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1 For inquiries about ANPO: Art X War and to purchase the film for an educational institution’s library, contact the director through the film’s website.