A long time ago, in a country far far away, I had a Japanese roommate. Manabu was lovely, a total gentleman, but not very chatty. I blame the language barrier, or maybe we just didn’t have that much in common. Eventually we bonded over injuries (his sporting, mine alcohol-related), microwave breakfast burritos (he loathed them, I loved them) and our two crazy little island homes. Comparing the UK and Japan is not as odd as it first sounds. Culturally and geographically we have a lot of shared aspects. We’re wilful independent island nations, who revere our daring histories of medieval knights and samurai warriors. Other countries are somewhat nervous around us as if you give us a flag and a gun we tend to get a little carried away and decide to go off and be a colonial invading force. Small countries, big ideas. Despite our macho military history, our national characters are reserved and polite, and we like to know our place in the social hierarchy. We’re the worlds best queuers!
Art historian Dr James Fox seems the similarities in our two nations, although sadly in this series on aesthetics and art in Japanese life, we are yet to hear his opinion on the breakfast burrito. This BAFTA nominated broadcaster has a day job in Cambridge University’s Art Department and first came to my attention presenting Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? on BBC4 in September 2016.
He’s an engaging, enthusiastic, and quite cheeky presenter. His trademark seems to be a sharp black suit and tie, ever ready for a funeral or a cocktail party. He’s really good at breaking down complex ideas about art, religion and society. These big ideas are discussed in simple terms. His passion for the subject shines through. And, pleasingly, as you’d expect from a BBC4 art show, this whole episode is beautifully shot and framed.
In Japan, Dr Fox says, almost everything has the capacity to become art. Oh really, says we, show us some delightful examples.
We might think of a vast metropolis, with bustling streets and neon lights when we think of Japan, but 73% of the country is uninhabited by humans, and covered in forests and the mountains. It’s also home to 10% of the world’s active volcanoes, which seems like quite a burden. As Dr Fox says nature in Japan is ignored at your peril. We wander with in to discover Shinto spirits in everything (rocks, trees, waterfalls) and how everything is deserving of respect. The tiny Bonsai tree, such an immediate international symbol for Japanese art, is the untamable, tamed and put in a museum.
I adored the painting by Buddhist priest Sesshu – a simple black ink used in a watercolour style. It was so abstract and modern it could have easily been painted yesterday when in fact it was completed in 1495. It was like a magic eye picture, the longer you look, the more you see. The detail in each brush stroke opens up to you – the cliffs, the mountains, and the hut in the foreground which is a pub. You can tell by the sign hanging out front.
The Great Wave by Hokusai was discussed of course; that monstrous wave that dwarfs Mount Fuji, one of his dearest and most famous subjects. In fact Hokusai loved the mountain so much he has a series of 36 woodblock prints of Mount Fuji. Why have just one when you can have 36? You know the picture, I’m sure, but at first glance you barely even notice there are 20 fishermen in it, battling against a terrifying looking sea. In Japan we’re told, the picture is read right to left, unlike the West where we flow with the wave. So to the original audience it looks much more frightening.
We end the episode wondering if modern Japan might be at war with nature. They’re busy damning nearly all their rivers and concreating over the countryside. The thoroughness we see throughout their society and culture is a blessing and a curse. Dr Fox predicts a continuing contradictory relationship to nature. The nation of Japan celebrate, reveres and mythologises nature but yearns to tame it.
There’s a real depth and breadth to this programme; complicated ideas are considered in some detail, but it’s never too complicated to understand. The second episode is all about cities and the third is about the home. I’ll definitely be along for the ride.
Catch up on iPlayer – all the episodes are there and you’ve got just under a week left to watch episode 1.