J-Cin Sundays: “Achilles and the Tortoise” and the Contemporary Japanese Art World

Title: Achilles and the Tortoise
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Year: 2008
Notes: Though the clip is animated, this is a live-action film.

The Japanese Art World
Back in February, American-expat-turned-Japanese-art-curator Robert Tobin went searching through Japanese art schools to find new works for his gallery. In an article for The Diplomat, he wrote that, of the 300 or so artists he looked at, “I couldn’t find one that blew me away or that I wanted to represent.”

I’m not sure why the works I saw were nothing special to me, but here’s what I think. Art is of course a reflection of society. What I saw at these top art universities is a reflection of what I see too often in Japanese society—conservatism, fear, a muting of emotions, an unwillingness to take risks and most importantly, a lack of passion.

Part of this conservative tendency in the Japanese art world is a basic residue of Japan’s tendency to pound down the nail that sticks out – it’s a country that enjoys harmony and prefers conformity. Many artists with a unique vision face audiences who don’t know how to respond – and so, usually, they don’t – either out of politeness or fear.

One of the best-known and creative Japanese artists is Takashi Murakami, who has called the Japanese art world “backward” and claims he only found success by going overseas – and then, basically, re-importing himself into Japan. “Our culture doesn’t have balls,” he says. Japan “never had a solid hierarchy of taste to give contemporary art an influential position,” he explains elsewhere.

Japanese culture was always top-down; and the peasants didn’t have access to critical thinking about art. There was no taste distribution and therefore nothing resembling art discourse in Japan – only craftsmanship.

And so, Japanese artists usually don’t see themselves in the framework of cultural critics, but as craftsmen, tradesmen. Making art was (and remains) about making a piece, not edgy ideas that challenge the culture.

Growing Up in Color
“Achilles and the Tortoise” is a surprisingly human film from the often nihilistic director (and actor, among other titles) Takeshi Kitano.

The film begins by introducing us to Machisu, a boy from an upper-class family in 1950s Japan. He wants to be an artist. His father, a silk merchant and patron of the arts, is a powerful man, and so Machisu can pursue his passion to sometimes comic ends.

He draws in class and, ratted out by another student, the sympathetic teacher is calls Machisu’s vulgar caricature of the teacher “brave.” And then Machisu walks out of the class to go draw. He’s nine.

Soon disaster strikes the family, and Machisu goes to live with his rotten farmer uncle out in the inaka. His uncle doesn’t like all that art stuff, so Machisu gets slapped around and called “Bakaro” (idiot!) a lot.

When he see him again, he’s a teenager, still painting while working as a newspaper delivery boy. But this time, far from the vibrantly colored, imaginative finger paint masterpieces of his childhood, he’s painting technically proficient still lives of boats.

And from there, Machisu goes on to imitate every trend in art just a little too late – hence the “Achilles and the Tortoise” of the title, a reference to a very fast runner who can never catch a tortoise because he simply started running too late; a concept illustrated in an animated vignette at the top of the film (and this blog post).

By the time an elderly Machisu is out doing street art in his best impersonation of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a comic scene ends up tragic.

Growing Away
The film is a heartbreaking portrayal of an artist so hellbent on chasing other people’s ideas that he loses his ability to express himself without the shield of other people’s techniques. This is particularly Japanese.

We’re reminded of the emotional paintings Machisu made as a child. These paintings were stolen and are hung, anonymously, in many of the galleries that reject him.

As he gets older, his work becomes more like advertisements, more exploitative, more gimmicky.

I’m reminded of Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, for a piece of advice that no one gives to Machisu, a piece of advice that may have saved his life:

Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own — only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you. What is happening on your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.

Machisu’s gimmicks are both comic and tragic, ridiculous in their desperation, always looking outward instead of inward, alienating him from the people he loves.

This is the point of the film: Trying to make up for lost time and finding that you can’t. It seems bleak, but Takeshi’s film offers the audience some solace in the final act.

While this film is far from perfect, it’s an enjoyable experience for anyone concerned with art and life, and a rare film that explores contemporary issues in the Japanese art world.

Further Reading 
Studio 360 has a great podcast episode about art and culture in Japan, including interviews with female Japanese artists who “push the envelope.”

Do any of you have recommendations for other Japanese movies about art or artists? Leave a note in the comments! Thanks! 

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3 Responses to J-Cin Sundays: “Achilles and the Tortoise” and the Contemporary Japanese Art World

  1. David says:

    I wish I could respond to Robert Tobin (maybe I can on the Diplomat), but despite the fact that I know little about Japanese contemporary art, everything I know can be summarize in those terms: “Japanese contemporary seems to be about connecting with people, nature and society, creating links and bridges between those and art” while Western world art is more than ever about “bullshitting your way through, and make lame ideas and clichés sound profound”.

  2. afox says:

    love this post–especially as an artist and someone interested in going to japan for a bit. i’m not quite sure about yayoi kusama’s history–but i think it’s similar to murakami’s statement about going elsewhere and then returning to japan.

    i’d love to hear more from everyone about other contemporary japanese artists…i’m afraid i’m a bit limited on this one…kusama, murakami, nara, etc.

  3. Pingback: On the Death of Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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