S&M, Cannibalism in Museum Show Provoke Backlash in Japan

An exhibition of paintings showing cannibalism and dismemberment is stirring a debate on art censorship in Japan, the home of violent manga comics.

Aida Makoto’s work at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum last night provoked protests from a Japanese organization called People Against Pornography and Sexual Violence.

The group wrote to museum director Nanjo Fumio demanding that the images be removed because the museum was showing sexual, misogynistic material.

“It’s not so bad compared to manga and anime on the Internet,” Nanjo said in an interview. “This artist’s vision is about our society, which is hidden and (which) often people don’t look at.” The disturbing works encourage the viewer to question violence in all its forms, not to celebrate it, he said.

Makoto’s “Monument for Nothing” career retrospective includes pictures of Japanese retirees playing croquet with severed heads, a suicide device designed to always fail, a giant blender full of naked women and a kamikaze attack on New York (painted before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001).

Hidden behind a black curtain is a section restricted to people of 18 years old or more, where Makoto, 47, shows images of dismembered women and of a multi headed monster having sex. The latter echoes a 19th-century print by Hokusai.

Unlike the easily recognizable output of Takashi Murakami or Yayoi Kusama, Makoto’s oeuvre contains so many different styles that it’s impossible to label him.

Mishima Inspiration

He draws inspiration from comic books, prostitution advertisements, the Marquis de Sade, and Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer who committed ritual seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) in 1970.

One painting shows a farmer in traditional Japanese costume harvesting Louis Vuitton bags from a muddy field. A Bonsai sculpture has smiling heads in place of cherry blossoms, poking fun at the country’s ’Kawaii’ culture of cuteness.

A folding screen depicts crows, some with human remains in their beaks, perched on electric power poles positioned at dangerous angles -- a post-apocalyptic tableau recalling a 16th-century work by Hasegawa Tohaku.

Makoto’s supporters say he is no mere smut peddler. Pornography is just one of the many devices he employs to provoke the viewer to reexamine everyday aspects of Japanese culture and see what lurks beneath the calm surface.

In the hands of a less skilled artist, the show would come off as sophomoric and gratuitously vulgar. Yet the scenes are so exquisitely rendered that, at first glance, one overlooks how horrific they can be.

S&M images of nubile amputees done in acrylic on Japanese paper (inspired by the true story of a serial killer) are rendered in muted colors in the traditional nihong style. A classical Japanese mountain landscape is, on close inspection, made up of mounds of dead salarymen.

“Aida Makoto: Monument for Nothing” runs through March 31 at Mori Art Museum, Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-Ku, Tokyo, Japan. Information: +81-3-5777-8600 or http://www.mori.art.museum/eng/index.html.

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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