Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form

4.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Illusion of Gardens

Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form

The study of the Japanese Stone Garden is the study of Japanese religion. The two are as inseparable as the symbolic architecture of Catholic Cathedrals and the Bible. There are no rocks in a Japanese stone garden, but only icons of Mt. Horai, home of the immortals, or great turtles swimming in the cosmic ocean, bearing the Earth on their backs. As author Stephen Mansfield states, Japanese gardens are works of religious art.

Which is why “Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meanings, Forms” is much more than a guide to the garden. Mansfield does his best to give you a crash-course on Buddhism and Shinto, on why stones in particular are of importance to Japanese religion, and how those views have been shaped by contact with China and India. He takes you on a tour through the symbology of stone, showing what to look for and how to recognize certain arrangements and what their meanings are.

The book is split into two sections. The first, “Introduction to the Japanese Stone Garden,” takes up the bulk of the book and lays out all of the religious motifs and meanings, as well as the nature of Japanese stone gardens. He is quick to point out that the term “Zen Garden” is entirely American and has no meaning in Japan; these are gardens linked with Buddhism, but rarely with the Zen sect. He also talks about some of the standard design elements of the garden, the use of borrowed scenery and framing. I particularly enjoyed the talk on modern stone gardens, and how modern materials and techniques have shaped new gardens.

The second section, “Japan’s Exquisite Stone Gardens” is a picture-tour through some of Japan’s most famous and beautiful stone gardens. The focus is really on imagery, although some text is provided for each photograph along with a brief history of each garden. I have been to several of these gardens, and I think the photographer did a masterful job of capturing their elusive beauty.

Of course, having been to several of these gardens in real life, I also know what an illusion the photographs are. While they look like visions of serene peace, and in some distant time they must have been, now they are loud, rambunctious places packed with tourists and all the support industries of food hawkers and souvenir stands. I would love to see the Ryoan-ji pictured here, austere and unembellished. In real life, your attempts to contemplate the stones are interrupted by jostling crowds and blaring loudspeakers that give a pre-recorded history of the temple and the garden nonstop.

And that is really the only complaint I have against this book (and books of this kind). While the author does mention the reality of crowds and noise in the text, I would have loved to have seen a picture of these gardens packed with tourists and sellers as they are in real life. Because anyone going to Japan seeking the serenity they find in this book will be sorely disappointed.

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Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog of Tokyo

5.0 out of 5 stars Dog’s Eye View

Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog of Tokyo

Daido Moriyama is a name I have never heard before in my life before I picked up “Stray Dog of Tokyo.” But I had enjoyed the previous two releases in Viz’s “New People Artist Series,” with Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama, and I wanted to continue with the series.

Moriyama, it turns out, is a fascinating individual. Born in 1938 in Ikeda, Osaka (where I lived for four years, which was an unexpected coincidence!), Moriyama is of that cynical generation who were children during war-time Japan, then saw the selfish and empty society that sprang up in the aftermath. Like other artists of his generation (Oshima Nagisa springs to mind with his Cruel Story of Youth), Moriyama started making a record of the shadowy parts of his country hidden by the glaring neon-lights of pop-culture progress and a future that seemed eternally rosy.

A notorious recluse, Moriyama only opened up for this documentary under the condition that it would be done on a single camcorder, with as little possible barrier between subject and screen. I found that fascinating. Too many photographers that I know use their camera as a barricade to hide behind from the world. Shy people, they hold up huge cameras up to hide their own face and are only observers, not participants. Moriyama specifically attempts to avoid this by using small cameras, and from shooting from the hip rather than composing shots.

He says that he developed this technique as people react differently when they think they are on camera, and this way the photographer and subject can be eye to eye like people. He purposefully uses cheap cameras, picked up in used shops and markets, and it was not until this documentary that he took his first digital picture.

I loved listening to Moriyama talk about his photography. He has fascinating theories, like about how photographers should only copy, and not try and put themselves into the picture. For awhile he experimented with controlled exposures on pictures, but he was unsatisfied with this as he felt that he was then attempting to manipulate the world around him, rather than just copy it.

This was an interesting point, as photographer Nobuyoshi Araki (Subway Love) points out most photographers are creating fiction with their work. Araki makes mention of both their works involving Love Hotels, with Araki’s being largely posed and Moriyama’s (Daido Moriyama: The World through My Eyes) being raw and emotional.

The title, “Stray Dog in Tokyo,” comes from Moriyama’s own reference to himself in his autobiography Memories of a Dog, which I may just have to pick up. Thanks to Viz for introducing me to a fascinating and powerful artist!

Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara

5.0 out of 5 stars Enter Yoshitomo’s World

I first became aware of artist Yoshitomo Nara (The Lonesome Puppy, Oh! My God! I Miss You) with his CD cover Shonen Knife CD Happy Hour. From there, it seemed any book on contemporary Japanese art, from Plastic Culture to Warriors of Art contained a reference to the popular Pop Artist. Thus I was excited to see this documentary, “Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara,” and hopefully to gain a little more insight into an artist whose work I admire.

The first in a series of documentaries by Viz Pictures covering contemporary Japanese artists, “Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara” is exactly what the title says it is. Rather than being a documentary on the artist and his works, it is more like a camera being allowed to tag along as Yoshitomo leaves Japan for overseas exhibitions in places like Korea, Thailand and the United States.

The trips are a challenge for Yoshitomo, who is an introverted and shy individual uncomfortable with being treated like a pop star celebrity. He is confronted with women calling him “handsome” and asking him why he isn’t married, and heavily pierced New York hipsters trying to make an impression when all Yoshitomo wants to do is crawl into a small, comfortable space where he can live in his head.

Each location takes him out of his element, forcing him to talk about his artwork and his ideas, and brings to him a bigger challenge when he wants to create small houses in each gallery into which he can put his art. The building of the houses forces Yoshitomo to work with a crew, and as he says himself he slowly comes to understand the values of shared experience and accomplishment. The latter part of the documentary focuses on Yoshitomo’s desire to build an entire village of his little houses, the “A-Z Village,” meaning he must assemble the largest crew he has ever worked with, and to challenge himself on a personal level in order to achieve his vision.

I really liked the style of “Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara,” and the way it allowed you to see the artist as a human being in his own natural environment, instead of trying to be a lesson on contemporary Japanese art. The documentary definitely comes from the stand-point that the viewer is already familiar with Yoshiitomo, and does not go into great detail about his style, history or place in contemporary Japanese art. It is more of a video portrait of the person.

I enjoyed this documentary even more than I thought I would, and I will definitely keep my eye out for the rest in this Viz Pictures “New People Artist Series, ” including Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me and Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog of Tokyo.

Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World

4.0 out of 5 stars Urban Vinyl

Ah, what a wonderful invention plastic is! Nearly limitless possibilities, able to be shaped into almost any form, take on any color, and endure across the centuries. As functional as it is fantastic. Of course, it was only a matter of time before artists took this malleable material into their capable hands, and created something that the inventors of the plastic would have never imagined. In this case, it is toys.

“Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World” supposes to tell the story of plastic, and its journey from function to fantastic, from commerce to art. Supposes to, because unfortunately the book seems to have fallen victim to a loss of focus, or possibly a conflict between writer and editor. Instead of this history of plastic, and their connection to Japanese culture, what the writer wanted to write about was an artistic movement called Urban Vinyl, originating in Hong Kong and then spreading to Japan and the US. That’s his passion, and it shows.

The first half of “Plastic Culture” is rough. It begins with a very brief history of plastic’s invention, and its use in toys across the years. There is some brief connection with Japan, introducing the Kaiyodo model makers who perfected the garage kit. There is a half-hearted section on using toys for marketing purposes as mascots, mainly mentioning McDonalds Happy Meal toys and the Olympics. Trying to swing the story back to Japan, Sanrio is covered with their successful line of Hello Kitty figures and other characters. These articles are all short on text, and heavy on pictures, jumping rapidly from section to section without much logic or interest. Its pretty boring, and not very well researched. Then, on page 43, author Woodrow Pheonix begins the section on Urban Vinyl. And it all changes.

The Urban Vinyl movement began in Hong Kong, with a couple of young talents started taking apart GI Joe figures and putting them back together street-style, dressed in the latest Hong Kong fashions and with an attitude that GI Joe never imagined. These two, Michael Lau and Eric So, exhibited their work at galleries, and inspired other artists to see toys as a medium of expression, rather than just playthings. The movement jumped across the water, to Japan with its ingrained toy culture, and then to the US underground comics scene, where artists like Dan Clowes (“Ghost World”) and Archer Prewitt (“Sof’ Boy”) began teaming up with Asian designers to produce unique figures combining all of their talents and visions. Into this comes Takashi Murakami, famed for his Superflat exhibition and one of Japan’s greatest modern artists, who sees the concept of creating original works of art in toys, rather than just reproducing existing works in plastic. Yoshitomo Nara, another prominent Japanese modern artist, follows suit. Its fascinating.

If this book had been called “Urban Vinyl,” and started with Lau and So in Hong Kong, then been given enough depth to explore the artistic movement completely, it would have been incredible. Woodrow Pheonix has a real passion for this movement, and a deep insight into what makes it tick and how the pieces fit together. His interviews with Murakami and Nara really made me reconsider the way I see toys, and it was great to here these two giants of modern art put forward such opposing yet complementary viewpoints on Urban Vinyl.

But it wasn’t, and so “Plastic Culture” is really only half a great book. That second half is really something, and worth picking up the book for. It makes me want to learn more about Urban Vinyl and hopefully someday Pheonix will get to write the book that he should have. I will be first in line to pick it up.

Ideals of the East: The Spirit of Japanese Art

ideals

 
4.0 out of 5 stars A poetic look at Japanese art and religion

Kakuzo Okakura, author of the legendary The Book of Tea, was a first-hand witness to the rapid changes of the Meji period, when the closed nation of Japan had its locked doors forced open by the US military, and was suddenly thrust onto a world stage of which it had previously chosen to decline.

Okakura was first and foremost a scholar; a member of the Imperial Art Commission, Okakura had been sent abroad in 1886 to study the artistic development of Europe and the US and to see how that compared to Japan’s own development. Upon his return, Okakura saw a need for a book in English explaining Japan’s artistic foundation, the religion and cultural elements that shaped that foundation, and how changes across the centuries had been paralleled by artistic development.

First published in 1904, “Ideals of the East: The Spirit of Japanese Art” is that book. Beginning in the pre-history of The Primitive Art of Japan, and following through such things as Confucian and Buddhist influences, the book then ranges through the Asuka period, the Nara, Heian, Fujiwara, Kamakura, Ashikaga, Toyotomi and Tokugawa periods before finishing in Okakura’s own Meiji period. Instead of a straight history of art, Okakura discusses the ideals of each period, the various religious beliefs and the political forces that shaped Japanese art.

Rarely have I seen such a small book packed with so much information. At only a hundred and six pages, Okakura ranges over a thousand and more years of history. Like a skipping stone flashing across a deep ocean, Okakura touches down in each era only long enough to give the true essence of the art created then without superfluous details or a listing of major works and artists. This book is, after all, about the “Spirit of Japanese Art” and not a lesson on the art itself.

Because he was a scholar, and writing for other scholars instead of the general public, Okakura presumes a familiarity on the part of the reader with Chinese and Indian art history, with important Asian art movements and the religions of East Asia. His language is in the style of the time, verbose and poetic rather than academic. Sometimes it seems like his sentences are flights of fancy and speculation, but there is a great depth inside his words.

“Ideals of the East: The Spirit of Japanese Art” is not going to be a book for casual readers. One should have a decent background in Japanese history and Eastern religions to truly get the gist of what Okakura is trying to tell. Because he skims over topics that he thinks the reader would already know, coming to the book cold might be a bit overwhelming. But if you are familiar with the topic, the book will enrich more dry, academic studies with the true passion Okakura felt for the artistic achievements of his native land.

One interesting side note: Almost no attention is paid to what has become the modern image of Japanese art, the ukiyo-e prints. Although Okakura recognizes their beauty, he writes that he is afraid that the easy-to-understand, brightly colored pieces of design would eclipse the thousand-year history of more subtle and complicated works of Japanese art. And that is exactly what happened.

Photography in Japan 1853-1912

photo

5.0 out of 5 stars The best and most complete book on the subject

Many of us have grown up on the myths of Japan, on the fairly tale land of samurai and geisha, of castles and 10 foot square huts. Like the knights of Europe, it can be hard to distinguish between the real living beings and the legends. However, fortunately for a brief moment the ancient and the modern intersected, and cameras were able to capture a feudal society on the brink of change. Cameras are like time machines. One little click of a button, and a small slice of the past is captured and preserved, opening a window from then to now, and allowing modern people to experience something so far lost as to almost be unreal. While they seem to be relatively modern inventions, cameras have been around for over a century, and the images captured from so long ago are a fantastic treasure.

“Photography in Japan 1853-1912” is much more than just a picture book, however. It is a complete education on the history of photography in Japan, from its barren beginnings to its flourishing boom as the country modernized and a craving for Western technology meant a constant demand for new equipment and skilled photographers. Absolutely everything is here, including the earliest known photograph of a Japanese person, a castaway rescued by sailors, as well as impressions from Eliphalet Brown Jr., the official daguerreotypist for the Perry Expedition. This could easily be a college text book, and its depth and breadth of knowledge is astounding.

But for those less than interested in a history course on photography in Japan, and just want to be blown away by the images, it also has exactly what you need. Gathering the best of 50 worldwide collections, over 350 images show the ancient Japan of our dreams, with full-page, hand-colored images of samurai in their finest armor, and beautiful geisha in their most expensive and extravagant costumes. Some of the photographs would be impossible to achieve know, like castles uncluttered by power lines and parking lots. Not that everything is just posed work. Several photographers of the time were interested in more photojournalistic “slice-of-life” shots, showing people going about their daily business blissfully unaware that these stolen moments would be studied and appreciated in a book over a hundred years into the future.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

bamboo

5.0 out of 5 stars A subtle blend of story and art

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Kodansha’s Illustrated Japanese Classics)

This is an elegant package. The story is a classic Japanese folktale interpreted by one of Japan’s greatest writers. A cautionary tale about love between humans and spirits, it is a well paced story, calm and quiet like a new moon. The text is balanced with the original Japanese script on one side and the English translation on the other. Interspersed though out are beautiful paper-cut illustrations. “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” is very much a piece of book art.

The only drawback of this edition is the size. It is small, and would have benefited from a hard-backed coffee table edition. As it is, it is too fragile to be a child’s book.

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