Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Kabuki Duck

File this one under east meets west, a topic I brought up in one of the early posts on this blog. This comes courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, in a short article entitled, "Prints of Culture." The following text is provided, excerpted from the recently published The Prints of Roger Shimomura: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1968-2005, by Emily Stamey:

A third-generation Japanese-American, Roger Shimomura was born in Seattle, Wash., in 1939. His early-childhood memories, however, take as their background not the vertical thrusts of the city's skyscrapers or the curves of the Pacific Coast, but the dusty landscape of Hunt, Idaho, and jagged horizontals of barbed wire. Shimomura's family, along with thousands of other West Coast residents of Japanese descent, was forcibly relocated to an internment camp following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. After their release, like many other Japanese-Americans, his parents refused to discuss the degrading experience and purposely downplayed their Asian heritage. Shimomura explains that after the internment, "the house was purged of everything even remotely Japanese." ...

While at an estate sale in Lawrence, Kan., a curious local questioned Shimomura as to where he was from and how he spoke English so well. After discovering that Shimomura was not a foreigner and in fact taught painting at the university, the man persisted by asking, "Do you do pictures of them gee-shee girls wearing them ka-monas?" Shimomura cut the questioning short by simply, and untruthfully, answering, "Yes." On the way home, he stopped at the university bookstore, where he remembered seeing a children's coloring book based on images from the Japanese woodblock prints known as ukiyoe, "pictures of the floating world." These were the popular images of Japan's Edo period (1615-1868). Sold for a price equivalent to that of a bowl of noodles, the pictures depicted fashionable entertainers (famous Kabuki actors, courtesans, and sumo wrestlers) and favorite travel destinations. Shimomura purchased the coloring book, and these lively pictures, complete with their "gee-shee girls," then made their way into a painting series sarcastically titled "Oriental Masterpieces" (1972-76).

Ironically, the ukiyoe figures in these works were as alien to Shimomura as they were to the man at the estate sale. "Everyone else made the ethnic connection, but it felt foreign to me. It was like a postcard from my grandmother's album; it wasn't part of my culture. That's how separate I was from all that." The aesthetic of the emphatically flat, brightly colored ukiyoe images, however, proved similar to the Pop style in which Shimomura was already working. These ukiyoe images came to form part of an artistic strategy that refers to the artist's own bifurcated heritage — ethnically Japanese, yet culturally American. Ultimately, they evolved into tools with which to critique stereotypes of Japanese-Americans.

And the following image is also taken from the book. Its title is "Kabuki Play," and it is a 1985 Lithograph by Roger Shimomura.

No question that Donald is quite the curmudgeonly mallard, and this is the sort of thing old Walt Disney himself might have played with back in his creative period in the thirties and forties. But the confusion here is no doubt intentional, as our irritable duck is dressed as a Japanese, and appears to be taking on the role of the "yellow peril" stereotype, threatening the beautiful blonde (American WASP), while the Japanese woman dressed in a kimono looks on (and if you've seen Kabuki, you'd recognize the posture and gestures as representative of that performing art). The sword is raised from outside the frame, and it is the viewer who is actually in this threatening position, but from what we can see of our arms, the viewer (or is it the artist?) is also Japanese, while the man cowering in the foreground has white skin and a Superman spit curl, but Japanese eyes, and arms. And in the background we see a Japanese military aircraft--a zero?

All in all, a wonderful jumble representing a disassociated identity. In many ways, this parallels the identity issues associated with immigration and first generation Americans that led to the creation of comic book superheroes like Superman and Batman. But, of course, the Japanese experience in the U.S. was entirely exceptional, and certainly was traumatic enough to motivate a critical attitude towards culture and symbols. This informed the work of the best known proponent of general semantics, S. I. Hayakawa.

I wonder if Disney sells these prints (there's at least one other that includes Mickey Mouse) at their theme parks (they do have art stores, you know). If not, they should. If nothing else, this says, in its own way, that it's a small world after all. A regular global village, in fact. One where, in the end, we all have to Duck, and cover.

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