Movies: Miss Hokusai


Screened during the Mill Valley Film Festival, this anime movie opens a window onto the household of Hokusai, the great 19th century Japanese artist, and in particular his daughter O-Ei. The film is based on the manga Sarusuberi and, as the introductory speaker noted, it is not by Studio Ghibli, whose output has tended to dominate western cultural channels of late.

O-Ei makes a fantastic central character for a movie. She is stubborn and feisty, exerting considerable sway over her eccentric father and his dubious hangers-on. She has inherited her father’s talent and is shown to be a gifted and ambitious artist, prepared to tackle all subjects, even the seamier material. She is also very sensitive to the needs of her blind younger sister: the relationship between these two is among the more tender and affecting parts of the movie.

I marvelled at the convincing recreation of the late Edo period (the year is 1814), and at the references to iconic artworks such as the woodblock print The Great Wave. However, the goal here is not the pure realism of a biopic: we see supernatural forces intrude on the action again and again.

I also warmed to the earthy, slightly irreverent tone of the piece, which made a change from the more earnest Studio Ghibli productions. The soundtrack is a delight – for instance, the playful juxtaposition of contemporary rock music with a classic 19th century panorama of the city. Recommended, especially for those with an interest in Edo-period Japan or the life of Hokusai.

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi) (2015)
Director Keiichi Hara
Running time 90 min

You can view the trailer below.

San Diego visit, part 2: scoping out Japanese folk art

Continuing the San Diego theme from my last post on Brush and Ink, I want to highlight an exhibition I saw at the Mingei International Museum, showcasing folk art and craft objects from Japan. It was a rare opportunity to explore this field in depth, and I was blown away by the bold designs and exceptional quality of the pieces.

The selection covers different regions of Japan and different categories of object: fans, folk paintings, baskets, cabinets and so on. The textiles displayed on the walls have huge visual impact, be it an Ainu coat from Hokkaido, or a summer kimono in a wonderful gold colour, by Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984).

Ceramics form the backbone of the exhibition, encompassing older traditional items – a sturdy plate with horse eye motif, such as you would find at a roadside inn – and later craft pieces from the ceramicists of the Mingei movement, started by Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) to champion the beauty of ordinary, handmade objects.

They include works by Masu Minagawa (1872-1953), who liked to paint her teapots with landscape designs, and by Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) and his apprentice Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007), who used rope impressions and a salt glaze to create unique effects. All three worked at Mashiko in Japan.

A beautiful, balanced show, designed to give the visitor a strong and lasting sense of the riches of Japanese folk art.

Mingei of Japan
Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA
2 April to 2 October 2016 (now closed)

Below: Ainu coat, unknown maker, late 19th c. Hokkaido, Japan. Cotton, indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, sewn, appliqued, embroidered. Mingei International Museum. All photos: SF.


Below: Keisuke Serizawa, summer kimono, mid 20th c. Japan. Banana fibre (bashofu); indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, stencil dyed (katazome).

Below: Plate with horse eye motif, unknown maker, early 19th c. Japan. Glazed stoneware with brushwork design. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Bowl, unknown maker, 20th c. Okinawa, Japan. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tea bowl, unknown maker. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Masu Minegawa, ceramic teapot, ca. 1900-1950. Mashiko, Japan. Mingei International Museum.


Below left: Lidded jar, unknown maker, late 20th c. Onta, Japan. Chatter-glazed (tobikanna) stoneware. Mingei International Museum.

Below right: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, bowl, 2004. Mashiko, Japan. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, tea bowl, ca. 1971. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, plate, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, cup, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


San Diego visit, part 1: Brush and Ink


I visited San Diego over the summer and saw two exhibitions of Asian art in the Balboa Park complex. First up was Brush and Ink at the San Diego Museum of Art, an inspiring selection of Chinese paintings chosen by contemporary artist Pan Gongkai (b. 1947), and hung with his own work.

Pan Gongkai is himself a practitioner of traditional ink painting.  The works he has chosen here represent different periods and genres, yet he conveys a strong sense of the tradition that unifies them.

Early works include a small painting on silk from the 15th century, Scholar Under a Pine, and two fan paintings by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Landscape with Lake and Three Boats and Landscape with Lake, Bridge, and Fisherman (the second on gold paper).

The art theorist Dong Qichang (1555-1636) is represented with a fan painting too: Orchids, Fungus, and Rock. There is a breath-taking snow scene by Huang Shen (1687-1773), Traveling in the Snow Mountains. There are several 20th century works, including Shrimp by Qi Baishi (1863-1957) – I do enjoy pictures of crustaceans.

For me, this was an interesting complement to the 2015 show Exquisite Nature at the Asian Art Museum, another display of Chinese paintings from across the centuries.  However, the San Diego exhibit is twice the size (40 works as opposed to 20) and the space afforded by these huge galleries is immensely helpful, giving the works more room to breathe and enhancing the journey from artistic past to present.

Brush and Ink: Chinese Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
29 April to 5 September 2016 (now closed)

Above: Scholar under a Pine, 15th century. Ink and colour on silk. 25.4 x 25.72cm. The San Diego Museum of Art. Image at

Ten days left to see Chinese treasures from Taiwan

The jewel of the 2016 schedule at the Asian Art Museum has been the show Emperors’ Treasures, which presents choice artworks on loan from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This show is now in its last ten days and is absolutely worth a visit.

The exhibition includes Chinese art from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, a period of about 800 years in total. There are paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades and other types of art as well, including the celebrated “meat-shaped stone” – a piece of jasper made over to look exactly like a piece of fatty pork.

I was especially taken with the ceramics: a black tea bowl with a tree leaf design embedded in the glaze (Southern Song); a wine cup and saucer in the rarest cobalt blue (Yuan); a famous blue-and-white globe vase with a flying dragon design (Ming, reign of Emperor Yongle).

The paintings are also exceptional, though I found the presentation less compelling. The exhibition followed a clear chronological format, which relies on separating the material out into discrete parcels. This structured approach works well for ceramics, less so for paintings. You lose that sense of the gradual evolution of the medium, of the constant, layered references back to earlier painters. Still, a show that is not to be missed.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
17 June to 18 September 2016

Above: bowl with tree leaf design. Jizhou kiln, Jiangxi province. Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). High-fired ceramic with black glaze. Height 5.1cm; diameter at mouth 14.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at

Below: cup and saucer with gilt decorations. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Porcelain with cobalt blue glaze and gilt decoration. Cup height 3.4cm, diameter at mouth 8.5cm; saucer diameter 15.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: vase with a flying dragon amid flowers. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty (1368-1644), reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-24). Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Height 42.2cm, diameter at base 16.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: meat-shaped stone. Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Jasper, gold stand. Height 5.73cm; length 5.3cm; width 6.6cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Recharging in the San Mateo Japanese garden


I was hoping to visit the Japanese garden in San Mateo Central Park after reading about it in the book Quiet Beauty: The Japanese gardens of North America. Happily, I managed to make that visit earlier this summer, the same day we saw the digital art exhibit at PACE. So if you do plan a trip to this part of Silicon Valley, consider experiencing two different aspects of Japanese culture in the same day and see both together.

The garden opened in 1965, following the signing of a sister city agreement between San Mateo and Toyonaka in 1963. It was designed by Nagao Sakurai, who had created several other American Japanese gardens, including the dry garden in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park (1952). It is a stroll garden built around a central pond that is fed by a waterfall. Two wooden bridges transect the pond; of these, the first is more prominent – an arched bridge with numerous fat carp swimming beneath it.

As you loop around the pond, you encounter lush foliage, eye-catching rock formations and a series of beautiful views, punctuated by unique features: the stone pagoda, the waterfall, the viewing pavilion and the tea house. This is a wonderful place to visit and attracts a different crowd from the garden in Golden Gate Park: more local families spending time outdoors, not so many camera-toting tourists on a deadline. Highly recommended.

Japanese Garden, San Mateo Central Park
San Mateo, California
Permanent attraction

Above: pathway near the viewing pavilion. All photos: SF.

Below: looking in through the main gate.


Below: view across the pond towards the arched bridge; there are carp in the water, and you can see the main gate again, this time from the inside.


Below: view from the arched bridge, looking towards the second bridge; you can enjoy the contrast between the trees and the local office block architecture.


Below: five-storey stone pagoda, donated by the City of Toyonaka.


Below: plaque on the pagoda.


Below: waterfall.

Below: reflections on the water; contrasting arrangements of rocks.

Below: the second bridge.


Below: many shades of green.


Below: pine trees.


Below: view looking back to the second bridge; you can see the arched bridge in the background.


Embracing the surreal: video animations by Tabaimo

tabaimo aitaisei josei
This exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art showcases the work of Japanese artist Tabaimo, who creates bold video animations in a style influenced by manga and anime. It works well as a complement to the digital art show in my last post, which was also by Japanese artists and highly immersive.

However, the Tabaimo show distinguishes itself by offering more sense of a narrative. Each of the three main animations is loosely inspired by the same work of fiction, the 2007 novel Akunin (Villain) by Shuichi Yoshida. I was sufficiently intrigued by an exhibition themed around a single novel that I checked it out from the library this weekend – another post on this may follow.

The video installation danDAN (2009) gives the viewer a kind of intimate bird’s eye view of life inside an apartment building or danchi, which is a setting used in the novel. Tabaimo presents a rapid-fire series of vignettes, some mundane and some macabre. The pace is quick and the viewing angles a little odd, so you strain to make sense of what you are seeing.

A domestic interior is also central to the video installation aitaisei-josei (2015), though here the surreal gains the upper hand. Disembodied organs (the heart, the brain) that popped up previously now take centre stage, contrasting strangely with traditional motifs from Japanese art (the full moon, the pine tree).

The effect is entertaining, if enigmatic. The work references a pair of lovers (Miho Kaneko and Yuichi Shimizu) from the novel, and even a second pair of lovers (Ohatsu and Tokubei) from a famous bunraku play of the 18th century. This would probably remain obscure to most of us, but for the excellent labelling.

New Stories from the Edge of Asia: Tabaimo: Her Room
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA
6 February to 21 August 2016

Above: Tabaimo, aitaisei-josei, 2015. Single-channel video installation. Running time: 5 min 33 sec. Image: the artist; Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo; and James Cohen, New York. Photo: Kazuto Kakurai at

The brave new world of digital art: interactive exhibits at PACE


teamlab crystal universe v2

This digital art show at the PACE Gallery in Menlo Park has proved very popular. Slated to close on July 1, it has been extended to mid-December. I booked tickets in what would have been its last week, and it was hot, heady and heaving with visitors. The crowds reminded me just a little of when I went to see Shunga, the 2013 exhibition at the British Museum, though the draw in that case was the erotic content.

The show is the work of teamLab, a group of Japanese artists collaborating on works that explore the nexus between art and technology. It really consists of two shows, housed in different buildings. The first, “Living Digital Space”, is more for adults; the second, “Future Parks”, is theoretically for children but was packed with adults nurturing their inner child. Ocean creatures, space rockets and railway layouts feature prominently – plenty to keep a five-year-old boy happy, though frustrating when the interactive digital train tracks won’t line up where you want them, and you can’t fathom why.

In “Living Digital Space”, the works are less interactive and more contemplative: flat-screen displays of constantly changing images, sometimes arranged as a series of smaller panels, sometimes unfurling across whole walls of a gallery. Themes are often drawn from the natural world, with motifs you might recognise from traditional Japanese painting, amped up: explosions of flowers, great frothing waves, crows, butterflies.

There is a strong technical underpinning, though. In Black Waves (2016), for instance, the image you see is based on calculations about the actual behaviour of particles at the surface of the water, yielding a computer-generated image which looks photographic but isn’t.

The pieces that made me linger were those that used technology in more sculptural ways. I enjoyed Light Sculpture of Flames (2016), in which points of light in a giant cuboid produce mesmerising flame effects. Crystal Universe (2015), described as “an interactive installation of light sculpture”, was exhilarating in the same way as a Yayoi Kusama mirrored room, like the one in the 2012 exhibition at Tate Modern.

Another immersive showpiece is Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2015), which I did not manage to see. The technology was broken and the room was closed while they fixed it. However, I was told I could come back again for free to see it another day, so perhaps I will. As art experiences go, this one is strange and tantalising, and admirably suited to its Silicon Valley location.

teamLab: Living Digital Space and Future Parks
PACE Art + Technology, Menlo Park, CA
6 February to 18 December 2016

Above: teamLab, Crystal Universe, 2015. Interactive installation of light sculpture. Image at

Bamboo basketwork: a contemporary Japanese art form

image modern twist sonoma

We took a trip to Sonoma back in April, to see this fabulous exhibition of contemporary bamboo artworks. The exhibit has been on tour in several locations and showcases the work of 17 Japanese bamboo artists, drawn from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

We received a very warm welcome from the museum volunteer, who introduced the exhibit and reminded us of the significance of bamboo in Japanese and other East Asian cultures.

As you can see, some pieces have strong geometric qualities, such as Sun and Squares and Circles by Tanabe Chikuunsai III (b.1940). Others exploit the visual properties of the material, with a shimmering moire-type effect on pieces such as Gentle Heart by Fujinuma Noboru (b.1945), or Pattern of Wind by Uematsu Chikuyu (b.1947) – inspired by the ridged pattern that the wind creates when it blows across sand.

Such allusions to the natural world are frequent: the wind, hot air, the sun, the moon. All in all, this show really opened my eyes to the sheer range of colour, shape and space that can be conjured up from this one material.

Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, Sonoma, CA
19 March to 12 June 2016 (now closed)

Above: Main section of the Modern Twist exhibit at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, seen April 2016. Photo: JF.

Below: Tanabe Chikuunsai III (b.1940), Sun, “Yo”, 1980. Bamboo (yadake and madake), rattan, lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanabe chikuunsai iii sun

Below: Tanabe Chikuunsai III, Squares and Circles, “Hoen”, 2005. Bamboo (yadake), rattan, lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanabe chikuunsai iii squares and circles

Below: Fujinuma Noboru (b.1945), Gentle Heart, “Yushin”, 2006. Bamboo (madake), rattan. Photo: JF.

image fujinuma noboru gentle heart

Below: Tanioka Shigeo (b.1949), Asuka, 2002. Fruit basket. Bamboo (susudake), Japanese horse chestnut wood (tochinoki), lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanioka shigeo asuka

Below: Tanioka Shigeo, Shimmering of Hot Air, “Itoyu”, 1999. Bamboo (hobichiku), rattan, lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanioka shigeo shimmering of hot air

Below: Uematsu Chikuyu (b.1947), Pattern of Wind, “Fumon”, 2002. Bamboo (kurochiku), wood. Photo: JF.

image uematsu chikuyu pattern of wind



A trio of pebbles: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, part 2


These massive, lustrous pebbles dominate the final section of the current Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. They are displayed in an adjoining gallery, alongside other contemporary works inspired by the mother-of-pearl concept.

The three giant pebbles by Hwang Samyong (b.1960) are made from lacquer and mother-of-pearl applied to fibreglass. This involves slicing the mother-of-pearl into very thin strips, a technique used on some of the more traditional pieces in the main exhibit.

Each pebble is a different colour, depending on the material used. The dark pebble (2014) uses black-pearl oyster shell from the Philippines and Indonesia. The green pebble (2015) uses native Korean abalone shell. The white pebble (2016) uses white-pearl oyster shell from Tahiti. The artist works from photographs of real pebbles, magnified up to 100 times.

I love how materials lifted from one type of natural object (seashells) are manipulated to recreate another type of natural object (pebbles), and one that you might also find on the seashore, suggested here by the mirrored surface on which the pebbles have come to rest.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Hwang Samyong, Pebble (P1409), 2014; Pebble (P1501), 2015; Pebble (P1602), 2016. Mother-of-pearl and lacquer on fibreglass. Length of longest pebble: 90cm. Crosspoint Cultural Foundation, Korea. Seen at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco in 2016. Photo: SF.

Black and white and nacreous all over: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware

image lacquer box
An exhibition of Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, on view at the Asian Art Museum, is one of those small but precious shows that invites you to delve deep into one particular subject.  A selection of 25 pieces, crafted between the 1600s and the 1900s, showcases the exceptional skills of Korean artisans in this field, and the wide variety of objects that were decorated in this way.

A rectangular box features a design of peonies, configured in rhythmic, curving lines. The peony was a common motif on mother-of-pearl lacquerware, signifying fortune and prosperity.  However, in this case the technique used is especially demanding, with the tendrils made from mother-of-pearl instead of wires. This involves preparing a very thin sheet of mother-of-pearl, from which long thin strips are cut with a special saw, and then applied to the surface.

A more pictorial design is found on a table, decorated with a bird on a plum branch, the plum being one of the “Three Friends of Winter” (plum, pine and bamboo) that stood for the virtues of the literati, especially in the face of hardship.  Very thin strips of mother-of-pearl have been used to create the individual bamboo leaves and pine needles.

Plum blossoms make another appearance on a lobed round dish, the lacquer applied this time not over wood but over paper, thickly layered. Korean paper was much sought after, in China as well as Korea, and its use here shows how versatile it could be. Both this dish and the table with the bird and trees were newly acquired in 2016.

These few examples illustrate some of the beauty and variety on offer. They are complemented by useful displays that explain the technical steps involved, and a short video that covers the same steps in more detail. Recommended.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Box with peony motif. 1550-1650. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 14cm; width 38.1cm; depth 30.8cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

Below: Table with bird and trees motif. 1700-1800. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 11cm; width 49.1cm; depth 26cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer table v2

Below: Dish with moon and plum blossoms motif. 1800-1900. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered paper with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Diameter 27cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer dish v2