Saturday, January 9, 2010

Welcome to the Okamotos

Sometimes, you're just not ready for something. And, when you see it, you shrug and say "eh", or have a similar reaction. Time goes by and you see it again and suddenly you have an epiphany - "you know, maybe this isn't so bad after all." A lot of old white guys go through this process when they "discover" jazz.

In my case, it was the artwork of Taro Okamoto (1911-1996). I'd seen his abstract sculptures around Tokyo before, and I'd considered them to be a little too silly for my tastes. So, when I saw his name associated with a gallery showing or a museum somewhere, I'd just blow it off.

But, it's weird the way things go. As I was working on the History of Manga series, I came across the name "Ippei Okamoto" both as someone that Tezuka called an inspiration along with Rakuten Kitazawa, and as someone that the Saitama Manga Museum said was Rakuten's equal as a newspaper cartoonist in the early 1900's. Problem was, Ippei didn't have anywhere near the amount of ink written about him as Rakuten did, so I was having trouble learning about him. Then, as I was trying a new approach for tracking down a museum dedicated to him, I realized that I was looking at Taro Okamoto's museum website, and two things clicked. First, Ippei was Taro's father, and second, Taro's museum was 3 miles from my apartment, right next to the Ikuta Ryokuchi park. And I'd been to Ikuta Ryokuchi before, in '08; it's the big open air museum dedicated to historic Japanese thatch houses.

So, the next day, I'm riding my bike over to visit the Taro Okamoto Gallery, a ways from the Noborito train station. The gallery is just down the road from the Ikuta Ryokuchi entrance a couple of blocks, past a planetarium and a couple of old steam train cars. Most of the building is underground, and there are only two of Taro's sculptures outside. The gallery costs 900 yen, and is actually pretty interesting. The hallways are built at weird angles, running off into dead ends; the rooms are different shapes, with little alcoves that are easy to miss if you're not paying attention; and, there's abstract artwork all over the place. Taro had a "life is art, and art is life" attitude which appeals to me right now. After a while, I found myself saying, "well some of this work is pretty good". He did a number of different projects, from the sculptures, to photography, music, stage production, clothing design and design for commodity mass production.

One huge room is set aside for temporary exhibits. The one running now consists of 4 big tables displaying 700 photos of Masafumi Sanai, an "up and coming photographer". Funny enough, many of the shots in his display are of the Taro gallery itself, while there's also a large selection of pictures of Evangelion pachinko machines. Nothing really outstanding, but a few of the pictures of different outdoor scenes did catch my eye. And the display space itself is pretty fun to be in.

There's also a cafe, a gift shop, and a small space showing biographies for Taro and his parents. His mother, Kanako (1889-1939), was an established poet and novelist, and her works include "Mother and Children's Lyrics" and "The Aging Geisha". She died from a stroke at age 49. The Kawasaki Museum in Todoroki will be running an exhibit on her this winter (Jan.-Apr.)

Of course, it's his father, Ippei (1886-1948), that I'm most interested in, and Ippei's primary output was through the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Meaning that I wanted to find a book of collected artwork in the gift shop. Unfortunately, the shop clerk told me that the one book they'd had was sold out and probably out of print. I did finally track down one used book, and I'll write about it in the next post. Meanwhile, I'm finding it frustrating that there's so little of his work available on the net. For being such a major influence in the early manga world, including having created a school for training new artists, Ippei is almost invisible now.

Anyway, the Taro Gallery is worth visiting, if you're ever in the Kawasaki area.

(The Japanese on the sign says "Do not enter, please". The English just says "keep out".)

I need to at least mention Ippei here. From the Minato City "Prominent People" page: Ippei (1886-1948) graduated from the Tokyo School of Art and then did design work for the Teiko Theater. He married Kanoko in 1910, and his first son was Taro. He was recognized by Natsume Soseki ("I am a Cat"), which led to his working for the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun newspaper. His works tended to consist of manga art combined with refined writing. The family spent some time in Paris before returning to Japan at the start of WW II. He opened a school for new artists, called "Ippei Juku". Two of his students included political cartoonist Hidezo Kondo and genre cartoonist Yukio Matsuura.

(Thatch house in the Ikuta Ryokuchi outdoor museum.)

The rest of the photo gallery is here.

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