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Shintaro Ishihara: Artist?

by Monty DiPietro

About a year ago, in a Tokyo Weekender piece, life-long Tokyoite and founder of the Japan Helpline, Ken Joseph Jr., recounted a tale of a little boy stuck in the weird social landscape of a defeated country: "Shortly after the end of the Pacific War, a group of Occupation troops had landed and were entering the village where [Shintaro] Ishihara lived. All the people of the village bowed as U.S. soldiers came by, but young Ishihara continued to walk along the road, eating an ice candy. It seems one of the troops playfully bopped him on the head, took away the ice pop and started licking it. Totally humiliated in front of all the villagers, Ishihara, according to the story, has never forgotten that day."

Ten or so years later, long before he would become governor of the world's largest city, Ishihara took to drawing, in ink on paper, some of the thoughts and visions that were floating around inside his teenaged head. Last week, on the fourth of July, the now-controversial rightist politician presided over the opening of a show of these doodles at the swank Hillside Forum in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. "Fantasy Drawn by Shintaro Ishihara in his Teens" comprises some 120 works and stands not so much as an art exhibition as a gesture—designed, it appears, to soften Ishihara's nationalist image.

I almost wasn't invited. "The opening party is closed," I was told on the telephone. "But I'm a professional art critic, I write for ARTnews, the world's leading art magazine," I countered, "how could I not be welcome at an art opening?" "Well," the official hesitated, "we'll call you back." They did, with the news that a member of their staff had vouched for my "very good name" and as such I could attend. Just like renting an apartment, I thought, all this foreigner needed was a Japanese guarantor.

And to the show. Well, the pictures are what might be expected from a privileged and serious student who, in the 15 period photographs in the attendant catalogue, is seen smiling just once. A little crude, very derivative, but accomplished—testimony to the heartfelt efforts of a singular young man. Many are forgettable, but some are engaging, a few disturbingly so. It seems our young Ishihara had a thing for the Dadaists, and had a command of the French language, as evidenced in the texts he scrawled on many of his works. There are portraits, quite often disjointed; some scribbles; and more than a few examples of able draftsmanship here. There is a picture of a swordsman slicing a butterfly in half, staining his weapon and splattering blood in the process—how much can a butterfly bleed, one might be induced to wonder.

"Mr. Ishihara wanted to do this show to give a message of inspiration to young people," explains producer Masako Aoyama, whose Aoyama Art Consultancy has marshaled a cadre of art professionals, including American painter Frank Stella and Japan's leading critic and curator Fumio Nanjo, in the careful orchestration of Ishihara's artistic debut.

Sometimes it is good to communicate one's heartfelt feelings in a broad way, and in this spirit I must say that the hateful and hurtful Ishihara, who in a 1990 Playboy interview referred to the Nanking Massacre as "a story made up by the Chinese," and who has reportedly spoken of an international Jewish conspiracy, and who earlier this year instructed the Japanese army to target foreigners in the event of an earthquake (using a racist term to boot) might not be the sort of person we want providing "inspiration" for this country's youth, whether artistically or otherwise.

As for the Governor's early drawings, it's a shame he didn't develop them further, they showed promise.

The show runs to July 23 at the Hillside Forum (5489-7410)
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