Last Updated:Jun 17, 2007

Illustrating the Showa Period: Tatsumi Shimura

The defining point in the Tatsumi Shimura centenary show surfaces as history contravenes, leaving this popular artist to fall between the cracks. What factors condemn Shimura, an able and industrious illustrator, to the third tier?

The clincher may be that the bulk of his output seems a little too in tune with the times, impeded by convention. For the defining point, a caesura really, occurs early on, when the moonlight streetscapes of the 1930s serials are overtaken by a deftly rendered swarm of Mitsubishi Zeroes and Nakajima Kates, advancing stealthily between the clouds. The latter image was printed in 1941. By the jumbled standards of this show, this dating, stark in retrospect, provides enough in the way of historical frame. In fact, it will have to do; no further background is given.

Other bits and bolts sustain lean reference to Japan’s feverish policies of State Shinto at home and imperialist expansionism throughout the Pacific Rim which, by 1941, had drawn its military regime into escalating conflict with Anglo-American interests. A photograph (undated) of a bandage-headed Shimura hints at demobilization; his propagandist calendar (also undated), encouraging war donations and included in the Yomiuri Shinbun, hints at disaster. The calendar cover features two stoic medical workers, their scrubs bone-white and emblazoned with tiny Hinomaru insignia. Though these figures have nobly weathered the fire-bombed doom and gloom of Japan’s ruined cities, the backdrop’s ominous, violet-black hues suggest ‘that the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage’—and thus foreshadow that oddly conciliatory phrasing from Hirohito’s August 14 1945 surrender rescript. Along with Shimura’s vision of aerial threat, these wartime vestiges loom over the incidental—possibly abbreviated—corner of conformist art which looms over the remainder of the show.

Tatsumi Shimura illustration for 'Kawaridane ''Fuji'' ', frontispiece (Dec. 1937) Private Collection
Tatsumi Shimura illustration for 'Kawaridane ''Fuji'' ', frontispiece (Dec. 1937) Private Collection
Photo courtesy of Yayoi Museum

That the eclipsing influence of war has been given incidental treatment (scattered dates, scant background) gives one pause—why have the curators included Shimura’s war-era work at all, if not to lend it, and in turn, his trajectory, historical dimension? Charges of whitewashing both the warped ideologies concocted in the era’s ultra-nationalist think-tanks and the resulting atrocities—well-documented yet unthinkable—committed by Japan’s Imperial Army would be untenable. After all, the curatorial unevenness stretches beyond the period of ascendant nationalism; the coinciding phase in Shimura’s oeuvre has indeed been cobbled together, but this is lamentably consonant with the museum’s slack grip on his long career’s overarching shifts and shades. Despite (or maybe because of) their elision here, virtually no doubt remains that Shimura’s feelings about national identity and the war were anything but incidental. They shaped the tenor of his work—such an argument convincingly emerges. It is supported by the resonance of the illustrations his wartime sympathies engendered: those comprising 1948-1949’s Tange Sazen suite.

Tatsumi Shimura, illustration for Fubo Hayashi's 'Tange Sazen No.3, Kokezaru no maki' (1948). Private Collection.
Tatsumi Shimura, illustration for Fubo Hayashi's 'Tange Sazen No.3, Kokezaru no maki' (1948). Private Collection.
Photo courtesy of Yayoi Museum

To apprehend that series’ inherent strength, we should first turn back before the Zeroes of 1941 to the tribe’s campestral roots. Shimura’s pastoral scenes, replete with faithful hounds and rouge-cheeked children, sylphlike maidens and emblematic hunters, at first glance look like nothing more than sentimental kitsch. But the harmless, idyllic veneer melts away once we scan the publishing dates: roughly, between 1935-37, during Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and on the eve of its invasion of China. Two strands converge in these veiled images of national pride. The first: Shimura was foremost an assured draughtsman and colorist; this graphic fluency betrays the fact that he was 28 in 1935. The second: Even the brightest spiritual-visual campaigns, designed by a sleek, authoritarian elite, dim beside the brutally countervailing realities, the deplorable privation, suffered en masse. So Shimura’s romanticized ‘natural’ imagery attracts then unsettles, much like the whirlwind compositions of vigilance and camaraderie that propagated the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution—or, perhaps more surreally, like those being subsidized by the dissolute regime in Pyongyang. In that sense, admiring Shimura’s mid-thirties illustrations from a strictly formal perspective would be egregiously akin skirting the tangles of Fascist sponsorship and praising Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia solely for its tracking shots and dissolves.

Those suspicions are allayed somewhat as the rhetoric subsides in the late-thirties moonlight streetscapes, some of which possess a wistfulness and vigor entirely their own. Then the Pacific War arrives, precipitating the stylistic break, strafing the illusions of imperial honor and national harmony with the hard facts of pre-emptive strikes and war donations. If strident nationalism compromises his early work to the contemporary eye, then its ideological devaluation midst Japan’s post-war ravages enlivens the Tange Sazen. series. Initially striking in these illustrations is the compositional economy. The lush landscapes and clenched cityscapes, already ebbing at the war’s outset, have been utterly wiped out. Atmospheric, taupe light frees up the ground; the figures need no longer be placed according to sweeping point perspective. Color bands and stage-flat screens or windows have been propped up in the absence of fastidious flora and bridge crossbeams, fluid shop curtains and water ripples. Those visual flourishes have all been effaced. It becomes clear that Shimura’s energies had by this stage cooled into maturity, namely graphic sophistication and poise. Not a trace of self-indulgence lingers in this post-war series. Overall, the sparseness conveys a sense of loss, of dashed fervor. For given this show’s critical shortcomings, it would be difficult not to read Shimura’s version of Tange Sazen allegorically.

Tatsumi Shimura, illustration for Fubo Hayashi's 'Hitori Sannin Zenshu' frontispiece (1934, Shinchosha)
Tatsumi Shimura, illustration for Fubo Hayashi's 'Hitori Sannin Zenshu' frontispiece (1934, Shinchosha)
Photo courtesy of Yayoi Museum

A one-eyed, one-armed ronin, Tange Sazen first appeared in the wings of a 1927 action-comedy serial by Fubo Hayashi (one among pulp writer’s Umitaro Hasegawa multiple pen names). The character’s superior swordsmanship—relieved and punctuated by terse one-liners and a talent for negotiating plot turns, respectively—guaranteed his popularity among readers as well as the publication of an eponymous 1933 serialized novel and the launch of what would prove to be a durable film series. Regardless of the illustrator or filmmaker, visual interpretation of the character seems to have been more or less anodyne, lightweight. By contrast, there is palpable menace in Shimura’s illustration for 1949’s Kokezaru, the third chapter of Hayashi’s novel, Tange Sazen. Here the character flows like a tiger in mid-stride across a field of pale grayish green. He stares the viewer down with his good eye. His rail-thin frame, visible only at the shoulders, disappears beneath wraithlike kimono. His arm, descending in a slight curve, guides the viewer from that glaring eye to the braced sword which falls below the picture’s edge. Red and black braids of cloth, upturned by the wind, billow along the kimono’s contours. Bare feet allude to intertwining poverty, discipline and wildness. A crimson slash denotes the ruined eye. His coal-black brow is arched forcefully inward—an expression of doggedness. Angled in three-quarter view, the miniature death’s head monsuki (seals of the clan) on the back and sleeve of the kimono echo the character’s taut jaw lines and ashen cheekbones. Apart from visual rhyme, these heraldic disks may also wield narrative weight: Tange Sazen carries what appears to be a funerary urn between his teeth. Death’s black signs are all around.

The ronin, disillusioned by the absurdities and imbalances of feudal code, stands alone; wounded and disfigured by meaningless battle, he perseveres. For a straightforward newspaper illustration, the vehemence is stirring. One immediately imagines Shimura surveying the devastation of World War II and discovering both bleak parallel and a model of resilience in the physically shattered warrior. Osamu Tezuka reluctantly took Tange Sazen on at his editors’ behest in 1935. To set Tezuka’s endearing cartoon mastery, all polished loops and swirls, beside Shimura’s sobriety, all dramatic tension and ellipses, is to understand how radical the character’s transformation, from pop icon to symbol of defiance, might have seemed to viewers in 1948.

Tatsumi Shimura illustration for 'Biographies of Master Swordsmen', cover image (Dec. 1959) Private Collection.
Tatsumi Shimura illustration for 'Biographies of Master Swordsmen', cover image (Dec. 1959) Private Collection.
Photo courtesy of Yayoi Museum

Nothing else on view at Yayoi surpasses Tange Sazen’s inventiveness or depth of feeling. Following that high-water mark and U.S. occupation, Shimura rambled into decline, churning out illustrations for record jackets, movie posters, theatre posters, romance magazines, pin-up weeklies, movie fanzines, and even jigsaw puzzles, in astonishing profusion. All illustrators produce their share of potboilers, variable quality comes with the territory—it is possible to concede these arguments in defense of Shimura’s collaborative magazine covers. But the endless string of overdone and ‘Americanized’ Japanese starlets from the fifties and sixties tests the limits of forgiveness, as does the museum’s scattershot presentation of Shimura’s preparatory sketches and schematic renderings. A westerner can’t help but feel complicit in the fact that, by the late sixties, with Japan rising as an economic superpower, Hollywood glitz had blandly replaced the embittered and emboldened warrior as Shimura’s enduring touchstone.

Tatsumi_Shimura_Double.jpg
Tatsumi_Shimura_Double.jpg

Left: Tatsumi Shimura illustration for “Collection of Masterpieces”, cover image (June 1959) Private Collection.
Right: Tatsumi Shimura illustration for “Collection of Masterpieces”, cover image (Sept. 1959) Private Collection.

He nevertheless set to work on a series of bjin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) in the late forties, after Tange Sazen, and returned to the format in his lusty twilight years. Yet only nominally do these mannered portraits figure into any bijin-ga tradition. While Shimura endowed his beauties with the floating world’s outward charms—exquisitely layered textiles, preening poses and sly graphic effects—he shied away from the genre’s blunt eroticism, an evocative current in the style of, say, a master like Utamaro. Drifting behind the scenes around the seedier alleys of Edo, the older illustrator also had designs on market success; he thrived on the seduction of Tokugawa’s artisan and merchant classes. As a byproduct of this gamble, his oeuvre too includes its share of potboilers. But compared with Utamaro’s suggestive teahouse maidens and pleasure-district courtesans, Shimura’s women look no more daunting or inviting than suburban housewives, arrayed for weekend tea ceremony. This inclination—briefly shed in tragedy’s wake—to idealize, to soften the visceral with (notional) serenity was Shimura’s gift as an illustrator and his flaw as an artist.

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Michael Balderi

Michael Balderi

Born 1975, year of the rabbit. Lives in Tokyo.

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