15 May 2011

ANPO: Art X War (2010)

Shigeo Ishii's 'Decoy'
It is difficult to measure the psychological impact war and occupation have on nations. Most documentaries content themselves with trotting out the facts and figures and interviewing loquacious historians and political figures. In ANPO: Art X War (2010), Linda Hoaglund uses art to tell the riveting story of the emotional impact the American occupation has had on the people of Japan.

For people like me, who were born and grew up in post war North America, the Pacific War seems like ancient history. In the intervening years, the United States has become involved in many other conflicts around the globe and World War II only surfaces as a point of conversation on the anniversaries of events like bombings of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hiroshi Nakamura with his work 'Base'

For the people of Japan, the continuing presence of American troops stationed across the country is a constant reminder of old political wounds that have never been resolved. Officially, the American Occupation of Japan ended in 1952. However, thousands of American soldiers remain stationed in Japan under the terms of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan – known colloquially in Japan as anpo joyaku (安保条約) or just plain ANPO.

In high school history classes we are taught that Japanese war criminals were tried and executed by military tribunals after the war. However, the truth of the matter is not so straight forward. Many of the men responsible for wartime atrocities managed to escape punishment and even continued to work in politics. One of these men was Nobusuke Kishi, who went on to serve as prime minister and was one of the key architects behind the 1960 extension of the ANPO treaty. Kishi became a puppet of the CIA, who used him in order to achieve their Cold War aims of using Japan as a buffer against communism. The people of Japan had not forgotten the role that Kishi and his militarist peers played in leading their country into war and during the 1950s and 1960s grassroots protest movements began swelling up against the American presence in Japan.

Hoaglund lays out a basic historical framework through interviews with historians such as Masayasu Hosoka (The Truth about the 1960 ANPO Struggle), New York Times journalist Tim Weiner (Legacy of Ashes, a history of CIA covert acticivities), and journalist Kazutochi Hando (The History of Showa), but the real meat of the film is the art itself and the testimony of the artists. This perspective is carefully crafted by Hoaglund, whose childhood in Japan as the daughter of American missionaries and her work as a much sought after translator and film subtitler (Spirited Away, Waterboys, After Life, et al.) gives her unique insights into the relationship between the two cultures. 

Miyako Ishiuchi and her work 'Hiroshima'
Of the dozens of artists, photographers, and filmmakers whose work was shown during the film, some that really stood out for me were the paintings and testimony of Hiroshi Nakamura, Magnum photographer Hiroshi Hamaya’s documentation of the ANPO demonstrations in the spring of 1960, and Yukio Tomizawa’s explosive documentary Rage at ANPO (1960). Some artists used satire as their method of expression, such as influential pop artist Tadanori Yokoo’s illustration of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato which was rejected by Time Magazine in 1970 as too political. Others, such as photographer Miyako Ishiuchi, try to tell the stories of ordinary people destroyed by political events beyond their control, as in her powerful photo series 'Hiroshima' in which she photographed the carefully preserved clothing worn by victims of atom bomb. The art in combination with the testimony of the artists lays bare the long term impact that ANPO has had on the artists themselves and how it has shaped their artistic sensibilities. 

The image that Time magazine commissioned and rejected from Yokoo
ANPO: Art X War captures not only a feeling of outrage at the hypocrisy of the Americans in ignoring the human rights of the people whose land they are occupying, but a greater sense of pain and frustration that the people feel at being betrayed by Japanese politicians who are meant to be representing their interests as citizens. The wide variety of paintings, prints, photographs, and film clips (both documentary and feature films) express these complex circumstances in a way that mere words never could.

I found the experience of watching the film overwhelming at times. It was not only the volume of images – 175 works in all – but the emotional impact of many of the works. Kyoko Ureshino’s photograph “A Little Girl Killed by a U.S. Military Truck” (1965) depicting a toddler moments after being crushed to death with the American soldiers staring at her lifeless body is such a powerful image and is now seared in my memory (see it in the slideshow of images from the film on the Art in America website). The interview with Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa is also very impactful. Her frustration at the presence of the American bases on Okinawa is matched by her sadness for the young U.S. soldiers whom she sees as lambs to slaughter. Hoaglund’s film not only looks to the past but also sheds light on the current generation of artists such as Makoto Aida, Sachiko Kazama and Chikako Yamashiro who are also concerned about the ways in which the ANPO Treaty and the continuing American presence in Japan has affected them. 

Talking heads on American television often speak incredulously of anti-American sentiment as if the people who want them off of their lands are somehow lacking in gratitude or just jealous of American might. ANPO: Art X War is the antidote to such simple-minded claptrap, demonstrating as it does the complex ramifications of occupation. I feel sure that if similar films were to be made expressing the suffering of the peoples of Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others through their art, it would give the world a much greater insight into the humanity of the people living those countries. Recognizing that the hopes and dreams of other citizens of this world are not so different from our own is the best way of preventing such conflicts from happening in the future.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

Update 17 May 2011: I've been told that this film is currently available on DVD for educators to purchase.  Click here to learn more.

Nippon Connection 2011