Japanese Anime Crosscurrents at Williamstown Expo

In a recent review of Japanese prints at the Clark, I suggested we’re all waiting for an exhibition to explore the “descendants of Japanese imagination from ukiyo-e, like manga comic forms leading to anime “. Well, here it is: “Repro Japan: Popular Visual Culture Technologies”. It was just across town this whole time at the Williams College Museum of Art.

And it’s wonderful: designing kimono prints, individual anime film cels, cosplay performance photography, vintage ukiyo-e prints and more ferment in a busy gallery with enough layers and associations to keep your head turned. While the title guesses that technology underlies the spread of these various forms, there is another, deeper stream: the human body. From the characters depicted in fancifully fashioned 19th century prints (in representation and in fact) to the types and archetypes seen in Japanese animation, there is the essence of humanity and character everywhere. Sometimes it’s insightful, sometimes it comes down to style or stylization, but it all relates and comes back.

These forms often adhere to what we call popular culture, infiltrating what is deceptively mundane: dressing up, going to the movies, obsessing over how we look. Mass production underlies these objects, from fabrics to wooden Noh theater printing blocks to photographs, as well as the application of printing and computer technologies. And while they’re not always limited to Japan, the specific designs here take on endemic specificity.

Vintage kimonos speak for themselves, leading to newer fashion items crafted for cosplay events, where people take on roles and costumes with fantasy or futuristic elements. Recent photographs, as well as a 1996 video by Moriko Mori, reveal both the costumes and the processes around these uses, which became well known in Japan during this decade. Cosplay takes on another meaning in a 1990 fine art photograph by Yasumasa Morimura, where disguise meets art history.

At the same time, the postures and costumes common to the many ukiyo-e prints on display reveal not only the theater of 18th and 19th century Japan, but also an influence of these forms and decorations on anime, as seen in many original cel animations. Sometimes these are paired on the wall, such as when an 1860 print of a Kabuki actor by Toyohara Kunichika is next to an anime cel from the 1994 OVA show “New Cutie Honey”, showing at least a superficial resemblance.

The show’s many fabric stencils are fascinating, their intricate patterns serving fabric designs and the people who wore them. There’s even an ukiyo-e print of a woman admiring a piece of fabric with a design much like one of the stencils. Resources like these take us to the roots of craftsmanship and technology behind the final works, and seeing the rudiments of an anime cel, or rough 18th century wood printing plate, adds the accent and, honestly, a revelation, which is not easy in an art exhibition.

“Repro Japan” is about connections and cross-currents. If there’s one flaw in all the ambitions and fluid ideas, it’s that the show isn’t big enough to do itself justice. Many technological influences and connections, however intuitively compelling, remain hinted and presumed. There are even wonderful parallels between 19th century landscape photographs and ukiyo-e versions of similar scenes, which are insightful but also a bit unsubstantiated. Likewise, some sculptural objects made with a digital 3D printer are meant to match, I think, the visible netsuke carvings, but they mostly end up teasing the viewer.

Usually the variations are beautifully additive: an album of vintage photographs of people in traditional dress, a PVC doll of an anime hero, video clips and cosplay snapshots, hand prints from years ago centuries alongside digital prints. If you are halfway interested in all of this, you shouldn’t miss “Repro Japan”.

“Repro Japan: Technologies of Popular Visual Culture”

When: until March 19, 2022

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, Mass.

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission fee

Information: https://artmuseum.williams.edu/repro-japan-technologies-of-popular-visual-culture/ or 413-597-2429

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