Hiroshi Masuyama at Toki Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

Tokyo residents largely ignore them, regarding the things perhaps as an unavoidable manifestation of the seedy side of life in a big city. But take a minute to reflect on the palm-sized sex-trade flyers that are pasted up inside telephone boxes, handed out (in tissue packets) to pedestrians, or stuffed into city mailboxes every day. The glossy, full-color advertisements typically feature photographs of young women, many of them young-enough-looking to make the schoolgirl’s uniform they are half-wearing appear not-inappropriate for their age. Accompanying the image is a salacious menu of available sexual acts, a price schedule, and a telephone number. No market encourages or supports the proliferation of advertising for a product or service that does not meet a consumer demand or satisfy a consumer need, so it is clear that prostitution, particularly involving minors, is a big business in Japan. Hiroshi Masuyama is an painter who has something to say about it.

"Bon-sai Vol. 3" is the latest installment of Masuyama’s ongoing work on the subject, an exhibition of nine new paintings of young Japanese females. Most of the pictures find high school girls in uniform, while a couple feature the new, tanned and blond "kogaru," or "gankuro" breed. The show is now on at the Toki Art Space in Tokyo’s young and trendy Shibuya Ward.

Masuyama’s large canvases fill the compact gallery, and look not unlike the flyers, posters, and placards that constitute the advertising media of the youth-sex industry in Japan. But there is another, seemingly incongruous motif in most of the works: a bonsai tree.

The artificially-dwarfed trees, explains Masuyama, represent traditional Japanese culture. The pricey young girls and the cheapened world which has sprung up around them, says the 56 year-old artist, represent what has become of Japanese culture.

Technically, Masuyama’s works are not especially impressive. The execution is rough and uneven, brushstrokes messed from a palette of acrylics dominated by the high-key and the garish. His backgrounds are flat and thin, and the line drawings he uses to describe the figures in his pictures appear as if they were traced from photographs. Over the pictures the artist has printed, crudely and in reverse, typical sex-flyer copy.

But where refinement is lacking it is not missed in these paintings, which work to force a sobering contemplation of the nefarious juxtapositions we have somehow come to ignore in a public media which unflinchingly puts the words "Anal Ok!" beside the picture of a smiling 15 year-old.

This November 1st, Japan responded to international pressure, particularly from Interpol and Unicef, and implemented laws against child pornography and prostitution. But for a slice of the generation of young women who grew up with, as Tokyo artist and Masuyama collaborator Peter Bellars puts it, "morals as loose as their socks," the regulations may have come too late, as there is no turning back to an unlived innocence.

Masuyama has been taking teenage girls as his subject for about three years now, and says that he has interviewed and even befriended many teenagers who are caught up in the trade. For an earlier exhibition, entitled "Cry," Maruyama’s subjects were not smiling or flashing "V" signs with their fingers, but laying on the floor and weeping. That the young girls do not lead the sort of carefree and easy lives which the mass media often suggests they do is another point that Masuyama wants to make with his art. It is welcome and encouraging to find a Japanese artist going beyond the objectification of subject and attempting social commentary with their work.

"I certainly don’t dislike the girls, on the contrary," says Masuyama. "I even like the new fashions they have developed. It’s the emptiness in their lives that I feel sorry for."


notes: Until Nov 21, 1999 - 3479-0332
Hiroshi Masuyama image gallery
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