Exhibition: Sumida River

Aftermath of the Disaster (1924) by Yoson Ikeda

A century down along the Sumida

In most of the great European capitals, wide, impressive rivers flow through the very heart of the cities, providing the perfect setting for stately buildings such as London's Houses of Parliament or Paris's Orsay Museum. By contrast, Tokyo's main river, the Sumida follows a rather more furtive route through unfashionable neighborhoods and run down industrial districts on its unheralded way to the sea.

It's almost as if the city was somehow ashamed of its main waterway. The present exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, attempts to make amends with an extensive exhibition of prints, paintings, photographs, and realia, paying tribute to the rivers important role in the city in modern times.

The earliest works on display reveal scenes little different from Edo period Japan such as the woodblock print Tokyo Shin Ohashi in the Rain (1876) by Kiyochika Kobayashi, which delays the rain a moment to allow the artist to revel in the reflections on the water. Even a woodblock print as late as Hasui Kawase's
Fukagawa Kami no Bashi (1920) presents a similarly timeless scene as the soft sails in the sunset of traditional Japanese river craft are heavily framed within the dark, mellow tones of an old bridge in the foreground. But mixed in with the styles, subjects, and mediums of a bygone age are details hinting at the inexorable advance of the modern era. Kogan Tobari's Senju Ohashi in the Rain (1913), with its large, rough-hewn bridge supports, seems rooted in a rustic past until you notice that the bridge frames the misty outline of a factory chimney.

The fact is that until the terrible earthquake and fire of 1923, the urban landscape retained much of its Edo character. Not surprisingly, therefore, a whole section of the exhibition is dedicated to the catastrophe that forever changed the city. The centerpiece here is Aftermath of the Disaster (1924), a large painted screen by Yoson Ikeda, eerily depicting the effects of the quake and the subsequent fire. Such is the devastation this could just as well be a scene from Hiroshima 1945, with four ghostly, emaciated figures standing against a deserted background of debris and charred tree stumps.

In the face of such destruction, the Sumida both protected some areas from fire and provided a vital sense of continuity. While the rest of the city underwent extensive rebuilding and modernization, the neighborhoods along the Sumida retained more of the old flavor of the city and changed at a slower pace. This is a tradition that has continued up to the modern day with the 'shitamachi' areas along the river holding a special nostalgia for modern Japanese.

The mixing of the old and the new can be seen in one of the oddest items at the exhibition: Yoshio Fujimaki's Both Banks of the Sumida River (1934), a series of interconnected ink drawings measuring as long as 16 meters. Walking along the display case, steel bridges, temples, concrete buildings and old neighborhoods, appear to move by as if the viewer were looking at them out of a train window.

While challenging modern artworks, like Tatsuo Ikeda's oil painting, Things Which Hurt Us – Memory of 1945 (1954), are included, the dominant tone of the exhibition is one of sentimental nostalgia. This is seen in the many excellent photographs of children playing such as Tadahiko Hayashi’s charming Sisters Playing (1948).

We are presented with a cozy view of a down-to-earth, working class area, where eternal human values of fun, family, and community overcome the horrors of war and industrialization. The visitors most likely to be deeply moved by this exhibition are those whose youthful memories are capable of being awakened by old realia, such as advertising posters, cigarette packets, or comic panels featuring the baggy-mouthed cartoon dog, Norakuro.

The Moderns by the Sumida River runs until Aug. 19, 2001 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
The Japan Times
1st August, 2001
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