“Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humor in struggling in ignorance. If you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while it would make you laugh because it becomes absurd.” – David Lynch
I’m so old-fashioned and boring sometimes. When I occasionally claim to like modern art it’s only when it’s of a type that makes a deliberate and obvious reference to something old skool that I know I like already. Otherwise, I sympathize wholeheartedly with the common view that modern art is incomprehensible – I just don’t “get it”, whatever that means. Sometimes this is fine, and I like looking at it anyway, but most of the time the thought makes me uncomfortable – we’re all afraid of things we don’t understand.
Case in point: one modern Japanese graphic artist that I have a squishy spot for, Takeda Hideo (1948- ).
A series of his prints that I like in particular take as their base complex tattoos that are the symbol of the gangster class in Japan. Here, tattoos are wrapped around fleshy and confrontational bodies in often complex configurations that emphasize repetition and pattern, like echoes of the tattoos themselves.
Sorry, backtrack – it’s called the Gempei series and is based on a medieval war epic based on true events in the late 12th century, the Tale of the Heike (‘Gempei’ is a shorthand configuration of the characters used for the two clans in the war, the Taira and the Minamoto). I can tell you about the Tale of the Heike some other time if you’re interested, but the central theme of this huge and complicated war narrative is impermanence and the meaninglessness of our actions – first the Taira clan defeat the Imperially-backed Minamoto, only to be defeated by them in turn twenty years later. Despite being a glorified account of idealized warriors and their conduct in battle, this is a tale with an overtly Buddhist message; that of impermanence, or mujō. Nothing endures, the mighty will fall.
The title of this post is the title of one of my favourite images in this series, an illustration of a well-know episode from the tale that has been referenced countless times in poetry and images for centuries. At this point in the narrative the Taira clan is once again forced into retreat, and they withdraw to their boats in a frenzied flight from the Minamoto. Defeated, but not without pride, a lady on board holds out her fan as a challenge to the enemy soldiers. In response, the young and skilled archer Nasu no Yoichi hits the target to the amazement and disbelief of all those who witness it, whether enemy or ally. Readers of the tale will know that this is the Taira’s final retreat. They escape to the southern tip of Honshū only to be followed by their enemy like Nasu no Yoichi’s arrow, and are decisively destroyed by the heroic general Minamoto no Yoshitsune at the battle of Dan-no-ura. All the elements of the traditional story of bravado and exchange are present in Takeda’s print, but they are highly stylized. The waves are identical in pattern to the blue-ink tattoos on many of the warriors in the series, and the white foam is nothing more than the repeated grasping hand of the fallen Taira soldier. The Taira boat is reduced to nothing other than the mast to which the woman clings; her role in this version grossly over-emphasized. Her voluptuous body is as tempting as the challenge offered by the display of the fan itself. But her challenge will be answered and her inevitable vanquishment is already known to us – the once mighty Taira will fall.
Visually, just one of many interesting things about this series is the way that the warriors are not wearing any armour – aside from their elaborate helmets, most of the warriors are sccantily clad, if at all. What they are wearing are the elaborate full-body tattoos that are most commonly associated with the criminal class of organized crime in Japan, the yakuza. Such tattooing was not contemporary to the period of these wars, becoming popular only much later in the Edo period (1600-1868). So why does Takeda depict them here? One possible explanation is that many of Takeda’s cartoons are concerned with absurdity, such as the neighboring image from his collection Opera Glasses (1977). His prints are often concerned with motifs of violence and cruelty, and his open claim to be a sadist is perhaps another means of incorporating his humour into his work. He has stated his interest in pointless struggles that humans undertake in the name of their blindly-chosen goals. This fits together perfectly with the theme of impermanence in the Tale of the Heike, and is surely a contributory factor in the success of the Genpei series.
On a more practical level, Takeda argues for the importance of colour to his cartoons (he describes himself as a cartoonist, and not an artist), and the use of tattoos is a wonderful way to achieve this. In real life, these prints are breathtakingly vivid, and even in reproduction their graphic intensity is nonetheless apparent. [I hope so anyway. I took these pictures myself a few years ago, so any poverty in these images is, as always, my bad. Better images probably exist elsewhere, but these recall to me a pleasant afternoon spent by myself crawling over a scratchy carpet in a museum storeroom photographing them for my own amusement. So, deal with it.]
In my real life, I primarily study the print culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century and my interest in warrior prints is sparked by their huge increase in popularity at this time – how we can give a sensitive account of the rise of warrior imagery amongst a commoner class during an extended period of peace in which the ruling samurai class had been reduced to an impoverished bureaucracy. Amongst the artists that I study, the fall of the Taira is a popular visual iconography, a tradition that Takeda himself recognizes in his work. The continued idealization of this warrior past in the present day is also interesting, and Takeda provides a commentary on this fascination by including the absurdity of this phenomenon within his prints. I think the Genpei series is wonderful, and I find many other things to like in his other work… but I understand that sadistic violence made ludicrous is not to everyone’s taste.
Conclusion? I would very much like you, dear readers, to buy me a print from the Gempei series. Such a print and/or a Teddy Ruxpin are the keys to win my cold, black heart. However, I am aware that, tragically (for me in particular), neither of these are sensible or likely purchases. It’s important to recognize your own absurdity.