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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2001


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 the Houses of Parliament in London or the Orsay Museum in Paris.

"Saika no Ato (Aftermath of the Disaster)," by Yoson Ikeda, colors on silk, 1924

By contrast, Tokyo's main river, the Sumida, follows a rather more furtive route through unfashionable neighborhoods and rundown 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 river's important role in the city in modern times.

"Nakasu no Yu (Evening in Nakasu)," by Gyokujo Masuda, colors on silk, 1936

The earliest works on display reveal scenes little different from the Edo Period, 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 of traditional Japanese river craft in the sunset are framed within the dark, mellow tones of an old bridge in the foreground.

Mixed in with the styles, subjects, and media of a bygone age, however, 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.

"Senju Ohashi no Ame (Senju Ohashi in the Rain)," by Kogan Tobari, woodblock print, 1913

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.

Double vision -- "Sumida River" by Ihei kimura, photograph, 1952

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 stretching for 16 meters. As one walks along the display case, steel bridges, temples, concrete buildings and old neighborhoods move by as if one 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 over- come 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 advertising posters, cigarette packets or comic panels featuring the baggy-mouthed cartoon dog, Norakuro.

"The Moderns by the Sumida River" runs until Aug. 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (03) 5245-4111, 4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku, a 15-min. walk from Kiba Station, Tozai Subway Line. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. & Sat. till 9 p.m.) Admission 900 yen, students 700 yen, high, junior high and elementary school students 450 yen. Closed Mon.

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