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    Two-dimensional imagination in contemporary Japanese women's performance

    Anan, Nobuko (2011) Two-dimensional imagination in contemporary Japanese women's performance. TDR: The Drama Review 55 (4), pp. 96-112. ISSN 1054-2043.

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    Contemporary visual artist Murakami Takashi defines Japanese visual art (from the traditional to the contemporary), as well as society in general, as "super flat." He writes in his "Super Flat Manifesto": Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional. It is particularly apparent in the arts that this sensibility has been flowing steadily beneath the surface of Japanese history. Today, the sensibility is most present in Japanese games and anime, which have become powerful parts of world culture. One way to imagine super flatness is to think of the moment when, in creating a desktop graphic for your computer, you merge a number of distinct layers into one. [...T]he feeling I get is a sense of reality that is very nearly a physical sensation. The reason that I have lined up both the high and the low of Japanese art in this book is to convey this feeling. (2000:5) [End Page 96] In another chapter from the same book ("A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art"), he further elaborates on his theory of super-flat aesthetics and argues that it is something that has neither any depth nor hidden truth beneath the two-dimensional surface (9-25). This conceptualization actually manifests his nationalist sentiment, as he writes, "'Super flatness' is an original concept of the Japanese" and "The world of the future might be like Japan is today — super flat" (5), suggesting his desire for Japan to have hegemonic power in the global art field. It is noteworthy that Murakami's conceptualization of super-flat Japan excludes women, as it is based on the sexualized power dynamics that he perceives between the West/Western art and Japan/Japanese art. I will not discuss this in detail here, but he elaborates on his view in essays from his book, Little Boy, "Earth in My Window" and "Super Flat Trilogy: Greetings, You Are Alive" (2005). In sum, with the "cool," super-flat aesthetics, Murakami attempts to turn a "castrated" Japan into the world's hegemonic power in the field of art hitherto dominated by the West. While critiquing Murakami, performance scholar Uchino Tadashi sees some relevance in his theorization of Japanese society and arts and uses the concept of super flatness to describe a certain type of urban, young people's theatre and dance performance in contemporary Japan, or what he calls "'J' performance" (2009:131). "J" signifies the "junk bodies" of performers, which are simply "physically present, burdened with nothing" and are thus super flat (128). Uchino compares and contrasts these junk bodies with the preceding generations of theatre practitioners. In shingeki, modern theatre that originated in the late 19th century under the influence of Western realist theatre, the bodies of Japanese actors were marginalized not only in the sense that actors' bodies sought to merely represent characters as linguistic constructs but also in the sense that the Japanese bodies were supposed to represent Western characters' bodies (126). Even in realist plays, pioneering shingeki actors wore fake noses and blond wigs to play the roles of Euro-American characters. As Uchino points out, shingeki thus aspired to the "transparent representation of the Westerners' bodies" but ended up exhibiting the Japanese bodies while marginalizing them (126). Challenging such marginalization, angura (meaning "underground") theatre practitioners in the late 1960s negotiated and reclaimed Japanese bodies through a struggle with language-oriented theatre or, in a larger frame, what they perceived as Western modernity. Angura actors' bodies were thus understood as an "aesthetic metaphor" for Japaneseness by the audience (126).1 Uchino argues that in contrast to angura practitioners, whose struggle was possible in the political upheaval of the postwar decades, contemporary young Japanese theatre practitioners under neoliberal sovereignty are already deprived of the language through which they can express antagonism and negotiate their subjectivity (130). I assume what he means [End Page 97] by "language" is twofold: the clear target of resistance that angura practitioners had (i.e., the modernity that they associated with Western realist theatre), and the ability to articulate political positions through language. The angura generation indeed often published their political statements as well as their theories of theatre.2 Unlike these predecessors, young contemporary theatre practitioners suffer from "depersonalization disorder," with their bodies being neither the representation of text nor the metaphor of anything (130, 139). The contemporary performer has a "junk body — which betrays and exhibits the postmodern rupture between language and the body by using super-flat surfaces on which diverse simulacra are projected" (Uchino 2009:133). Nevertheless, super flatness or junkness can function (un)consciously as a strategy of resistance, but without the direct confrontation with authority exhibited by the angura generation. Uchino explains that junk bodies in theatre "defy and ignore history, shared values and 'common sense,'" and those in contemporary dance pursue an "idiosyncratic movement vocabulary," without any interest either in "a linear narrative" or "inner emotions and personalities" (162-64). Through these performances, "J" performers bring up the issue of a "politics of representation" in their work, although they often seem to be unconscious of the political nature of their works (163). The all-female revue/musical company Takarazuka kagekidan (The Takarazuka Revue), female visual artist Yanagi Miwa, and female theatre director/playwright/actor Emoto Junko of the troupe Kegawa-zoku (meaning "fur tribe") are three strong examples of how super flatness or junkness can be thought of in relation to feminist aesthetics. These artists employ two-dimensional aesthetics in order to detach their bodies from the historically charged notion of "essentially Japanese femininity," which still haunts nationalist, masculinist, and heterosexist Japan. In contrast to the field of visual art where there are consciously feminist artists, including Yanagi herself, Uchino suggests, "[P]erhaps, there was (and still is) no feminist theatre in Japan" (2009:14). This may be the case, if an artist, or anyone else, needs to make a public declaration to be considered a feminist. In this sense, Emoto, whose troupe is actually included in "J" theatre by Uchino, is probably not a feminist. However, it is possible to see feminist politics in her work, at least from the perspective of a feminist audience member like myself.3 Likewise, although Takarazuka is officially a conservative institution, audience members, including Yanagi and Emoto, find subversive pleasure in participating in a homosocial and homosexual community.


    Item Type: Article
    School: School of Arts > Film, Media and Cultural Studies
    Depositing User: Sarah Hall
    Date Deposited: 20 Sep 2013 10:51
    Last Modified: 08 Apr 2014 10:51


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