Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura was born in 1960 in Boston, Massachusetts. Educated bi-culturally between the US and Japan, Fujimura graduated from Bucknell University in 1983, and received an M.F.A. from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music with a Japanese Governmental Scholarship in 1989. His thesis painting was purchased by the university and he was invited to study in the Japanese Painting Doctorate program, a first for an outsider to this prestigious traditional program.

It was during the six and a half years of studying in Japan that Fujimura began to assimilate the combinations of abstract expressionism explored in the US with the traditional Japanese art of Nihonga. Fujimura’s new book River Grace, traces his journey of mastering Nihonga technique using carefully stone-ground minerals including azurite, malachite and cinnabar, and his deep wrestling with art and faith issues. Upon his return to the US, he began to exhibit his paintings in New York City, while continuing to show in Tokyo, and was honored in 1992 as the youngest artist ever to have had a piece acquired by Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

After 20 years as a successful artist in Japan and the U.S., Fujimura has become a voice of bi-cultural authority on the nature and cultural assessment of beauty, by both creating it and exploring its forms. His paintings address the creative process and explore what it means to see. The work moves the observer from cognitive categorization to visceral experience.

In 1990, Fujimura founded the International Arts Movement, publisher of The Curator.

As an artist working from his studio near Ground Zero until the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Fujimura was deeply affected by the tragic events of that day. But his art continues to speak of hope even in darkness, and the deeper reconsideration of life's meaning. As an artist who travels widely, Fujimura recognizes the momentous changes the world is experiencing since those events, and the role of art in enabling people to reflect deeply, explore their feelings and become more profoundly aware. Some have experienced change for the better due to this awareness. In this regard he notes, "my work constitutes one of many voices calling for change, and I am increasingly hopeful as I observe evidence that we are all in a larger process of re-examining ourselves."

His works are represented by Dillon Gallery in New York as well as Tokyo. Public collections include The Saint Louis Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Time Warner/ AOL/ CNN building in Hong Kong. He was appointed to the National Council on the Arts, a six year Presidential appointment, in 2003.

Ito Jakuchu: the Preserved Colors of Independence

Imagine seeing the Declaration of Independence but a few feet away, and the rag paper has no blemish or damage, and the ink is indelibly fresh, as if the Founders had signed the document yesterday. Imagine having thirty of these documents from the same period lined up side by side, all in the same impeccable condition.

At the Ito Jakuchu exhibit, Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings at Washington DC’s National Gallery (until  April 29th), such is the experience of awe: of encountering a myriad of masterpieces, all carefully and scientifically conserved, and recently restored. I literally had to blink several times before it sunk in that the works in front me were done at least ten years (1757- 1766) before the Declaration of Independence was signed. As the founding fathers of our nation toiled to begin the great experiment of democracy, there were artists like Eitoku Kano and Jakuchu who toiled half way around the world in the Edo period, during Japan’s isolation years, birthing some of the world’s most indelible paintings. The accomplishment rivals that of the great heights of the Renaissance, and Jakuchu was Japan’s Michelangelo, and this particular series of scrolls his Sistine Chapel paintings.

I had seen this series of scrolls two years ago in Japan as part of the National Gallery of Art: The Treasures of the Imperial Collections exhibit: Splendor of Japanese Art.  Mr. F of Japan’s public television (NHK), who invited me to stay an extra day in Japan so I could attend the opening, asked “So which works do you find special?” I replied “this whole Jakuchu room…” Not much of an answer, as I just listed the entire first two rooms of the exhibit, so I went on to justify myself by explaining that you can see, in a matter of one viewing, what made Japanese art so distinct from the Chinese counterpart, or from Korean influence: as Japanese artists, like Jakuchu, literally began to focus on the micro layers of nature, the depiction changed from the Chinese cosmic sweep of the world captured in a single painting (as in one’s life compressed into a Confucian whole) to the Japanese sense of delicate, refined discipline found in nature.

In that naturalistic, decorative and animistic movement, Ito Jakuchu (1715- 1800) was the greatest and most innovative genius. The entire collection of Jakuchu’s extraordinary works from the collection of the Imperial Palace of Japan, which was revealed to the public for the first time ever in Japan two years ago, has made its way to Washington DC along with Jakuchu’s three major Buddhistic scrolls (never before seen in the U.S.).  This major effort, overlapping with the centennial anniversary of cherry trees being transported to DC, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.  The cherry blossoms disappeared early this year because of the warm weather, but Jakuchu is there for a month.  We will not be able to see these paintings again, even in Japan, in our lifetime. Do not miss this exhibit.

Jakuchu was an idiosyncratic and bold artist. Strongly religious (his name means “Like the Void,” coined by a Buddhist monk and friend Daiten Kenjo) and tied to the highest level of literati society in Kyoto of the 18th century Edo period, Jakuchu, as all the other artists of the time, sought foreign influences, which were not easy to find. Shogan Tokugawa closed Japan’s borders from 1603 to 1863, exiling many missionaries (in one of the greatest persecution of Christians in history) and foreigners, and forbidding their influence.  For this exhibit, one of the restorers discovered that Jakuchu used Prussian blue color imported (probably smuggled) from the West. His visual language was no doubt partly influenced by the descriptive language of European portrait paintings (most likely also kept in secret, too), but he blended them in sharp detail, in humorous and virtuoso celebration of animals, birds, fish, frogs, insects, plants and … the Phoenix.

What makes Jakuchu stand out from his many excellent contemporaries is his inventiveness, and his bold, if not transgressive, use of traditional images and motifs.  He had a vivacious and humorous vocabulary, and many of his images read like a Buddhistic koan, not a kind to be puzzled over in profundity, but a type of divine comedy.  His vegetables represented Buddha’s disciples, in other scrolls that imitated many ancient scrolls. Frogs acting like a Buddhistic priest was not new, and the famed Cho-ju-gi-ga, a scroll painting of 15th century, no doubt left an indelible influence on Jakuchu, but Jakuchu’s frogs are simultaneously symbolic and real. Jakuchu had a rare gift of being able to depict nature even to the minute details and, at the same time, provide a sense of a cosmic, abstract, and whimsical flow of life.

But it was the depiction of the Phoenix that made me stop as I pondered the images in Tokyo and now in Washington DC. The large banner of the Phoenix painting also greets you as you enter the National Gallery.

Why the Phoenix? One could only guess, but much like the unicorns of medieval European tapestries, artistic imagination takes us to the foreground of what cannot, and does not exist. Yet it is real in a vital and significant way to the day, to define the world that ought to be. Jakuchu painted these mythical birds, not because it was a popular theme (there was only one other Phoenix painting in existence in Jakuchu’s Japan, of northern Korean origin, preserved at Shokokuji Temple in Kyoto where he spent much time), but because he had to somehow delve into the inquiry into the unknown world. He declared his artistic idiosyncrasy in his imaginative landscapes. His were the colors of the independence of imagination.

The Phoenix is painted with oyster shell, crushed and re-mixed several times until it becomes a paste.  What makes Jakuchu’s white Phoenix so alive are colors painted behind (the back of) the silk, a delicate and nuanced technique of Chinese art that Jakuchu incorporated. Oyster shell is notoriously difficult to use and preserve on silk; as the silk is rolled to be stored, the shell will flake away. Somehow, Jakuchu found a way to make the luminous white last, and looking at the weaving of the silk (made easier to observe because of the National Gallery’s protective glass is much closer to the paintings than usually allowed), I wondered aloud if he had the silk made specifically for this series of projects: the colors have much to do with the surface they are painted on, as much as the pigments.  This series of scrolls was dedicated to his father and his family, and specifically made so that he and his family could be remembered after his passing. They are to be enduring parables of their lives represented in the birds, flowers and creatures – symbols of creative human beings trapped in the cultural isolation of Japan, longing for a universal calling.

Thus, while the fathers of the American Revolution saw the inevitable drive toward a country free of tyranny, for their independence, Jakuchu painted, in the afternoon light of Kyoto, these visionary and memorable works. Jakuchu shared the urgency to somehow warn and enlist the future into the present, and succeeded to do so as evidenced by this exhibit, partly thanks to the Japanese’s impeccable skill in preservation. Jakuchu’s paintings, with many fine examples in the Price Collection (formerly exhibited regularly at Los Angeles County Museum, but sadly not as public today), have influenced countless artists, including Takashi Murakami, the Japanese Andy Warhol of our day, as well as early fathers of “Japanimation,” like Hayao Miyazaki.  No doubt these works will continue to enlist imaginative revolutionaries of the future. My early career, too, was shaped by the birds-and-flowers genre, particularly the Jakuchu paintings in Los Angeles.

On American soil, the worn-out rag papers that perfectly capture our fragile democratic experiment, and still remain in a moisture-controlled box in the Capital, give us a glimpse into the delicate and fragile journey of the past. Jakuchu would have loved to have seen that document of our tumultuous history (he lived until 1800); that sense of adventure is captured in the Phoenix after all. And to have the entire series of the Imperial collection of Jakuchu paintings, available for but a few weeks in DC, makes our adventure to Washington DC worthwhile, even with the unfortunate early passing of the cherry blossoms.



Occasionally, we enjoy having contributors curate an entire of issue of the magazine. Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (publisher), commissioned three colleagues to collaborate on this special final March issue.  As you’ll gather, the emphasis is on Japan.

Why the Japanese Keep Winning World Championships

Despite being born in Boston, I spent my grade school years in Kamakura, Japan. My third grade teacher, Mr. S, was a catcher in an amateur baseball league. He used to throw chalk at students not paying attention, and I remember being hit by one in the head.

Mr. S was feared by his students, and he taught as if all of his students were baseball players. He emphasized team play, sacrificing of oneʼs desires for the sake of the whole. He taught us that paying attention was the best way to survive a class. Call it pre-Koshien training. Koshien is the famous high school baseball tournament held every spring and summer. It is where a good pitcher is discovered and then asked to throw over five games in a row in a span of a week. Think of Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox. He threw nearly 400 pitches in two days at Koshien, winning the championship after 17 innings in a tight game for Yokohama High School, and became a national hero. If you ever wonder why he is so ineffective now as a 36 year-old, you can rewind the tape of their high school championship to see the inevitable: no pitcherʼs arm can withstand that kind of abuse as a teen.

Japan, a country the size of California, has won a remarkable array of championships in recent times. Nadeshiko teamʼs surprise victory in the Womenʼs World Cup reinforced the notion that being outsized, out-powered and largely ignored does not mean that a country cannot win championships. Japan is a perennial power in the Little League Baseball World Series (though they lost a close one this year to a team from California). They won both World Baseball Classics. But there was a time not too long ago that the Japanese would contend for, but never win a championship.

If Mr. S is an example of what is pervasive in Japanese education, you can expect that many actually see education as overlapping with sports. For the Japanese, playing and excelling in sports is just part of culture. But Japanese teams always seemed to be literally dwarfed by the world. Though they contend in world stages, it was rare for Japan to win championships. That is, until 2004. At the 2004 World Baseball Classic, I saw something I had not seen before in a Japanese team. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Sadaharu Oh, the national hero of Japan, with his idiosyncratic balancing on one leg like a stork, as he timed his many home runs, was the manager of the first ever World Baseball team. Matsuzaka was on the mound for many of their key games, including their championship game against the formidable Cuban team. But it was in their game against the sure-to-be-in-the-finals Americans that I noticed something.

The US powered in some runs, and I was expecting the Japanese team, as they have done in the past, to look very stoic in the inevitability of a loss. Japan had always felt inferior to the US since WWII. The post-war sentiment was that the Japanese would work very, very hard to recover from the war, but when it came to leadership, it would always be deferred to others, especially the Americans. Even if you come close to winning something, you almost let that possibility go. I expected to see a face of resignation.

But the 25 year-old starting shortstop for the Japanese team, Munenori Kawasaki, looked out from the dugout during the next inning, watching his teammates come to bat. Kawasaki had dyed his hair with chestnut-blonde highlights and looked more like a Japanimation character than a stoic baseball player. But, I saw in his face something I had never seen in a Japanese athlete. He was actually having fun.

Up to this point, competing in a championship was a kind of duty, a bland effort toward a stated goal. Kawasakiʼs face said, “Isnʼt this cool that we are playing against the US and we are only down by one run? My counterpart is Derek Jeter and we can actually hold our own!” This was a new face of someone without the baggage of the post-war atomic debilitation or industrial work ethic as the only answer in a grey vision for restoration. This face said, “Heck, this is only a game, but we can match with anyone and we might win this whole thing.” And they did, celebrating on Petco Field in San Diego with Matsuzaka on the mound against a team that should have defeated them.

Japan’s women’s soccer team is called by a nickname “Nadeshiko Japan”, named after yamato nadeshiko, a pink plant, but also a figure of speech for the beauty of Japanese women who are modest but have inner fortitude.

With Nadeshikoʼs win in the Womenʼs World Cup, we will remember, of course, one of the most thrilling matches ever played, by men or women. The Japanese team broke through unprecedented categories. The US team has the best goalkeeper in the world, Hope Solo, and has never lost in a Penalty Kick shootout or even missed a penalty kick in the whole tournament. No team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of a regular game, and in the finals, no team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of overtime. When Abby Wombach scored in her typical dominating fashion in the last minutes of overtime, no one expected the Japanese women to come back. But this team, stricken with the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, decided that they had nothing to lose, but everything to gain. This was not just a stoic, hard-working team; this was a miracle team that created something out of nothing.

I saw the same creative energy, a quick strike that flowed out of Kawasakiʼs face, on the Nadeshiko team. And that outlook was evident much earlier in the tournament as they shocked the host and expected champion, Germany, in the the final seconds. It was a “nothing to lose” attitude combined with the trademark Japanese determination that brought the victory. Not only were they playing against the heavily favored Germans, or Americans later, they were thinking of the people who lost their lives in the tsunami and earthquake and the people who lost desire to live in the uncertain shadows of the Fukushima power plant. (One of the players actually plays for Fukushima, a team that has not practiced since March 2011.) All of the training that came from practicing on the grassless, hardened grounds of a Japanese soccer field, or from enduring chalk-throwing teachers, came to play. They were determined to be wholly present every second of the game, to make every move count. They found a resilience in focused attention rarely seen on the world stage. They moved as one, collectively inviting a whole nation to come on the field with them. A quick strike is all you need and the Japanese disadvantage of having small bodies became an huge advantage in those last minutes of play.

We saw Homare Sawa, who would steal away the MVP from Abby Wombach and win the Golden Goal award for most goals in the tournament, score with a simple flick of her right foot off a corner kick. But what the viewers may not have realized is that for that play to work, you have to convince the defender who has been guarding you for the entire game that you are going to head the ball. The other players on your team also have to set themselves so that one precious run toward the front of the goal will not be blocked. This corner kick was a set play, but it takes the entire front team to set themselves up so their captain has a shot of making that diagonal, counter-intuitive, run. If you are a small, but quick, finessed player, that, at the last minutes of the game, is the only play you have.

The execution was flawless and the game was tied. Then I saw something that echoed Kawasakiʼs face seven years ago. Norio Sasaki, the Japanese coach, faced his team before the penalty kicks to determine the winner. Squatting down to speak to the exhausted team, he was smiling. I have never seen a Japanese coach smile before, especially in such a crucial moment. This was a proud father-like face releasing children to also be proud of what they already accomplished. Whatever happened next was irrelevant. This smile transgressed the stoic Japanese norms, while the Americans wore steely faces. Destiny already decided the outcome: Japan dominated in the penalty kicks, even with their diminutive goalkeeper, and Homare Sawa became a national hero, holding high the golden trophy. Jumping up and down on the stage, the whole team looked like Smurfettes with a World Cup.

In Japanese, the name Homare means “to praise.” My mother, an avid sports fan reading the Japanese newspapers, noticed that her Chinese ideograms are unique. Sawaʼs parents did not use the usual ideograms of “to praise.” Homare is made up of two ideograms instead. “Ho,” meaning the husk of wheat or rice, and “Mare,” meaning extraordinary or a miracle. Imagine that: an ordinary substance to be discarded causing a miracle. Did her parents ever anticipate that their daughterʼs right foot would redefine greatness?

So the next time you see the Japanese play on the world stage, do not count them out. If youʼve been hit by a piece of chalk many times, you are not likely to forget to pay attention. And if your country needs inspiration, you are likely to provide one. You may even smile as you do so.

Ground Zero & the American Dream

Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. —Elie Wiesel


On 9/11/2001, one of the engines from the hijacked planes landed in our street, almost killing a pedestrian. For the past ten years, I have been, with my wife and three children, a “Ground Zero” resident. All of our three children attended public schools surrounding the towers. We were, like the pedestrian, spared.

Ground Zero, October 2001. Photo by Flickr user Susan E. Adams.

We were allowed to return to our loft, after being exiled for two months, for Thanksgiving of 2001. The stubborn fire that persisted throughout that time at Ground Zero finally went out around Christmas, and our children were able to return to their school building in February of 2002. By that time, Ground Zero was no longer Ground Zero.

No longer a raw, devastating and severe reality, Ground Zero had quickly become sanitized. Cheap trinkets were sold and American flags were waved for all sorts of ideologies. Tourists flocked to the site after the Canal Street entrance was opened. It became the flash point for demonstrations surrounding everything from wars to Islam to American destiny.

Has the concept of the  “American Dream” changed since the events of September 11, 2011?

The American Dream: a term coined by historian James Truslow Adams in 1931, meaning “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Each generation, until recently, passed on a higher expectation for the next generation to follow. I suspect each journey toward the American Dream is also a re-fictioning, or at least a re-telling, of personal narratives. Just as Ground Zero became co-opted, the American Dream can very quickly be short-changed into sheer materialism. Whatever the “American Dream” can mean, it is true that each generation may have its own version. Today, the “American Dream” can be liquid, and certainly elusive, but the incarnation of these ideals can morph and still fit the original definition.

What did 9/11 end, and what did it begin? 9/11 exposed the assumptions behind terms like “Ground Zero” or “American Dream.” For that we need to be grateful. For me, the past decade was an opportunity to think through the consequences of these assumptions. These two terms can be connected in such a reflection.

Theologically, the whole of earth is “Ground Zero.” We live in the fallen world in which every good, true, and beautiful reality is quickly idolized to something selfish, greedy and destructive. Christians believe that Christ came to redeem this path to self-destruction by taking on all of our “pride of the flesh” on the Cross.

“Ground Zero,” in Christ, can also mean a cancellation point, a new beginning where we can stand on the ashes of the Wasteland we see and still seek renewal and “genesis moments.”

The “American Dream” can be a collection of such “genesis moments.” The American Dream does not have to be merely a calculus of how many material possessions we can accumulate; it can be a measurement of happiness based on creative and relational capital. Rather than the blind drive to advance into all the areas of this fragile earth, we can purpose to care for her, as Creation Care advocates have noted. Rather than making Darwinian decisions on “limited resources,” we can endeavor to believe that God’s resources, especially the creative and relational capitals, are infinite. Creativity based on love can create a capital of generosity, feeding the world with fresh opportunities rather than fostering competition.

Caring for culture (or Culture Care) at large, just as we have began to do for our environment, is a noble goal for the next generation. This does not have to be a socialistic vision, by the way, which is based on limited resources, but can be based on the abundant optimism of what “America” represents. In other words, the “American Dream” does not have to be all about the houses and boats we own, but it can be about the celebration of the prudential and humble steps to steward the infinite grace we receive. It can become truly about the dreams of an individual, just as Adams defined the term the “American Dream.” We can see possibilities even as we grieve, standing on the ashes of Ground Zero, and as we endeavor to pass on hope to future generations.

This will require faith. And one does not even need to be an American to be part of that dream. The American Dream is no longer bound by geography, what passport we carry, or what political parties we belong to. A Dream is always meant to be open-sourced, imparted as a gift to those who dare to take on the challenge. Yes, America is a place, a locality. As such, America can be a ferment of experimentation: a place where new ideas can be tried out, tested in the microcosm of that locality, and shared. It can be a nexus of the creative and communal movement of dreamers, gathered to steward the future of the world.

Now, of course, immediate suspicion will challenge such an optimistic view. The world, certainly, does not operate out of generosity, but individual preservation and even greed. Capitalism depends on this drive. From the faith communities of churches, I can hear dissent as well. Are we meant to be triumphant over the city of men on this side of eternity? And if we are, are we not simply able to push back the darkness for a limited time before corruption sets within us? Are we not simply trying our best to be a force of resistance to the evils of our days until Christ returns? All of these positions are valid. Yet, I submit here a radical thought rising from the ashes of 9/11 and the subsequent financial crisis on Wall Street: capitalism based on only greed is not sustainable, and faith without audacity cannot survive in our extreme climate of pluralism.

Like Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi, we can begin our journey with a position of humility, and radical, audacious faith. We can journey on the winding path upward, praying with the birds’ trills calling each other through the tree branches of pluralism. A community that depends on material capital will only grow with the territorial battles. A community that depends on creative faith and communal vision will thrive even if the whole system of the world, or even the corrupt church of St. Francis’ times, is set against it.  Even the financial, political, and military “gates of hell” shall not prevail against it.

See Refractions: A Journey of Art, Faith and Humanity, for more essays on our post 9/11 journey.


A Tale of a Father and a Son

Painter Makoto Fujimura and his son, C.J., a Philosophy and Music major at Bucknell University, discuss The Tree of Life. The film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, opens in select New York and Los Angeles theatres May 27.

Makoto Fujimura: The intrigue going into Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, lead one to believe that it would be either one of the greatest films ever made, or a mystery of a film that would lead to a box-office disappointment.  The trailer is filled with promise as it surely is one of the greatest trailers ever made. How can any film live up to the poetic narrative, and the expectation, set up in the trailer? When the movie started, the jarring nature of the initial few minutes made the viewer uncomfortable, and the couple next to us started to chat.

The Tree of Life, Fox Searchlight.

C.J. Fujimura: The disjointed style with which the film begins actually felt unsurprising and appropriate, although I found myself asking how it could be maintained for a feature length.  Malick, from this place of uncertainty, which was surely felt throughout the audience, orchestrated long stretches of imagery and abbreviated moments of human drama into something that can certainly be described as poetry through film. This method turned the medium, usually used to depict or translate events in real time through screen and sound, into a collage of timeless moments and nameless characters. The drama that is represented is more than just the struggle of one family to overcome the loss of a beloved son. It is the dynamic ebb and flow that has been passed down through the universe itself from the beginning of time.

Makoto: The Tree of Life IS a true masterpiece. Great art makes you believe in the medium of art itself. Picasso makes you believe that paint and collage can do great things. The Tree of Life makes one believe in the medium of film; and film that is designed (thank God) specifically not to be seen with 3-D glasses. The movie is better than the trailer, and the viewer does end up journeying into the narrative of a family struggling to find peace in Waco, Texas. The people next to me did eventually become quiet, settling into the emotional depth of what Malick weaves together masterfully.

C.J.: The future of culture is tightly intertwined with the universal. Globalization has created a worldwide sense of community, and art is at the forefront of this new script. This is a story which cannot be read or understood by one set of symbols and, as such, Malick has used every corner and crevice available of the expressive space that film allows. Tree of Life manages to suggest great potential for this medium, and the arts in general by association, to tell this story.

Makoto: There are paintings imbedded in every scene of the film, either consciously or unconsciously. Wyeth pops up, with Bill Viola and Pipilotti Rist seeping in between the scenes; Jessica Chastain, playing the grieving wife, even looks like Helga (Andrew Wyeth’s favorite model). At times I even felt that I was in Chelsea galleries, rather than a theatre. Sean Penn’s character, an urban architect who designs both his own and his parent’s Philip Johnson-esque modernist house, meanders about, lost in a fragile house full of light. We are to remember his teenage days, as a leader of a pack of friends in the dull summers, throwing rocks through windows to prove his toughness. We hear the broken glass, but we also feel the sharp edges of despair and loss.

C.J.: We are the YouTube generation. We would rather change the channel then stay put on one story. Our culture is built of bits and pieces thrown together in whatever way works for us. Each part seems small but they are linked by association and they coalesce into a whole. Our musicians don’t cover classics, they sample them. There is too much available, and it comes at us too fast, for us to be satisfied with single strain narrative in the same way that previous generations may have been. The stories are out there to be read, but we are the ones who connect the dots. For us, Malick’s approach is not new or jarring — it’s fitting. The pieces brought together on screen encourage the viewer to make their own connections and form their own greater theme. This film aims to portray life itself, the universal drama, in the same way we understand it: by clicking through all of the related videos on the right side of the YouTube page. From each we take a moment, a line, or a gesture of beauty, and without each, the whole would not be complete.

Makoto: Pay attention to what is in-between things on screen. Note the dragonfly that buzzes in between the father and the mother as darkness enfold the town; see the abstract patterns behind Brad Pitt’s face turned away from the camera — a father oblivious to what is disappearing.

C.J.: We are not given classic Brad Pitt cool-as-hell moments, and blades of grass get more screen time then Sean Penn. It is hard to tell how this will be received, but for me, this fresh approach to film begets a fresh approach to acting, and every one of the actors succeeded, which is remarkable. I’d like to believe that this is only one example of the generative power this film, and other works of art in the future, might have.

Makoto: The Tree of Life is a deeply theological film.  Not since Magnolia has a film captured the depth of the depravity of our hearts, the temptation that sways us, the despair of the loss of life.  It lacks, though, the reality behind what is to come.  What is depicted as heavenly turns out to be nostalgia more than Heaven invading the Earth, or a vision of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The world of reconciliation comes in a stark, desert-like flatland. But the “theology” behind the master may turn out to be more a philosophical, metaphysical search informed by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, than the reality of faith.

C.J.: As a whole, my generation is not excited about faith. It is perceived as a foggy windshield through which the road cannot possibly be seen clearly, although the driver sure looks comfortable. To a peer who is turned off by the heavy presence of faith throughout the film, I would suggest that the portrayal of spirituality is necessary for Malick’s purposes. Faith and religion, much like art, are an attempt to understand something which cannot otherwise be understood. There is no better vehicle for a movie like The Tree of Life than prayer because it focuses the mind on the intangible. The movie would be less effective without spirituality because it would be more difficult for the viewer to accept the metaphysical nature of Malick’s writing and directing.

I think, though, that my peers misunderstand their own struggle with faith. There is faith built into everything we do. It is not a choice, it is a necessity. The choice is this; which understanding of faith is the best?

Makoto and C.J.: The Tree of Life is a film that has to be a film; no other medium of art can capture what Malick captures.

The Art of Transformation

The term “funeral parlor” does not quite do justice to the scene. The Japanese word “nokanshi” is closest to “encoffineer,” but the word only describes the task of preparing the dead body for cremation. The nokanshi in the Academy Award-winning movie Departures does the task, yes – but does so carefully, lovingly, and artfully.

Such an “art” of preparing the dead body seems unnecessary in today’s modern Japan: by law, the body will soon to be cremated, so pragmatism dictates only the minimum preparation. In Departures, even the grief-numbed family of the deceased cannot fully comprehend why this art is taking place. Other funeral directors do not really acknowledge that the occupation of nokanshi even exists in modern Japan.

Isn’t our task to get rid of the body as soon as possible? Apparently, we have all forgotten, in our pre-packaged, convenience-driven culture, how to bury our dead. And yet someone passes away every day somewhere in our provinces. Death is ubiquitous and immediate to our lives, but we do as little as possible to prepare to face that reality. Thus this “art” of preparing the dead body infringes upon the most sacred, and the most neglected, part of our lives. Departures chooses to dwells there, deep beneath the tradition and conventions of our days, and at the same time dares to plumb the depth of Japanese aesthetic and culture.

If Departures was simply a tale of a strange, macabre fascination with the dead, or a typical story of tradition crashing with the modern, it would not be so worthy of our attention. But this movie feels different, from the nostalgic opening of the snow of the northern country of Yamagata to the poignant ending, bringing together all the hidden strands of submerged stories.

The film challenges the old wineskin of blockbuster filmmaking. Ten years in the making, Departures is much more than a film; it points to the emergence of a serious new transformative force in filmmaking by the Japanese. Watching Departures is like watching an awkward teen blossom into a beautiful young lady. It is nothing short of astonishing.

The movie’s enigmatic beauty is unexpected. Who would have expected a film about dead bodies to be so revealing of life and spirit, and such regional scenery to begin to dominate our urban journeys? How can a ritual to prepare a dead body be so compelling? And who are all these remarkable actors who produce a symphony (a la vintage Woody Allen movies) of allusive and memorable scenes?

Not many years ago – when the only noteworthy Japanese films were Akira Kurosawa’s spectacles, Hayao Miyazaki’s animation genius, or an occasional horror flick – one would have expected a film like Departures never to reach a wide audience, or even have been created. But I have always wondered why the Japanese could not make a compelling film, when the Japanese culture and aesthetic is so dependent on visual imagery and nuanced expressiveness (think of Noh theatre). When Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s hauntingly beautiful Maboroshi came out in 1998, I anticipated great things.

But it wasn’t until I saw Departures that I could say with confidence that Japanese films now have what it takes to reinvent the craft of filmmaking altogether. The world needs to pay attention – and patronage – to the subtle aesthetic, the story-rich culture filled with humor and pathos. The Japanese, I expect, will produce some of the most memorable offerings of the coming days.

Departures tells the story of a frustrated young cellist returning to his hometown in Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan with his wife. When he applies for a job he thinks is with a travel agency, a strange tale begins to unwind. The master nokanshi, played by veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki (known to play Shogun Hideyoshi in films, and who was also in Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha), begins to work on Daigo, the main character (splendidly played by Masahiro Motoki, who produced the movie). The viewer is invited to witness a subtle act of persuasion, and the acting allows a deeper story, undulating beneath the surface, to reveal itself.

The story tells of a prodigal son, still angry at his missing father abandoning him, and a master taking in an accidental progeny. It is also of an urban dweller returning home to his furusato (“old home”).

I’ve lectured in Yamagata College of Art, invited by a friend who taught there, so I’ve seen firsthand this humble city surrounded by mountains. The town seems to be caught between traditional boundaries and modern capitalism; between ski slopes (now a bit dilapidated) and pachinko parlors (definitely not dilapidated). Departures is also about boundaries of accepted customs and traditions that we are forced to cross every day whether we dwell in cities or in the country.

But it is also about how art can transcend these boundaries, defining the cultural geography of tradition in postmodernity. Departures ultimately is about the nature of beauty within a convoluted landscape. All of the actors and scenery instinctively capture this tension and give it resonance.

The Japanese have the ability, and the unwritten code of honor, to make all acts, however mundane, beautiful and refined. There’s no reason why they cannot apply the same principle to acting as they do to every other task. When I was coming back to the airport from Tokyo, I saw several elderly workers clean the elevator belts with sanitized towels because of the flu threat. They had developed the “art” of the belt cleaning, each with a distinctive style. Every subway announcer, Koshien (high school baseball) cheerleader, department store elevator operator, and gas station attendant all take pride in what they do and create unique signature to their “art.”

Japan is also a gift culture, where things are wrapped and presented beautifully. It is a country full of artful wax models of dishes served in restaurants (a welcome sight for gaijin visitors), and anything bought in the stores is wrapped carefully and diligently. So it is no surprise that there is such an art form of nokanshi, a delicate ritual of wrapping the dead.

But, of course, wrapping a dead body is not as simple as wrapping a book (every book purchased in Japan is given a cover by the cashier, so that the act of reading will be private) or a box of sweet cakes (which in themselves are an art form owing to their connection to the tea ceremony). A nokanshi has to prepare the body, which means stuffing cotton into every opening in the body to prevent leaks, and will occasionally have to deal with decomposed bodies – or decapitated bodies, due to suicides by leaping onto the track of an oncoming train.

Over a decade ago, Masahiro Motoki read Nokanfu Nikki, by Buddhist mortician Aoki Shinmon, which describes the nokanshi procedure in detail, inspiring the film’s story. Taking every precaution in depicting this delicate issue, he took nearly a decade to produce and release the film, never expecting it to do well. As an actor, he navigates delicately and awkwardly between the harsh reality of dead bodies and live, screaming families of the deceased. But it is the ensemble of cast he assembled who surrounds him, and their dedication to the art that makes the film a true gift.

Ryoko Hirosue, who plays the long-suffering wife who cannot fathom why her husband would be engaged in such an objectionable trade, deserves an Oscar of her own. Her portrayal of transformation, and of devotion, is radical for the sole reason that Japanese culture does not have a model of fidelity beyond certain conflicts, of faithfulness and love that grow out of tension. The moment of such marital transformation, depicted without words or fanfare, reveals a depth and promise rarely seen from American movies. The Japanese, it seems, can capture such depth of inner transformation, to invite the viewer to feel the truth without bludgeoning the point or moralizing the tale.

Takashi Sasano, who appears in close to a hundred Japanese films as a comedic character actor, plays an attendant at the cremation plant. “I have come to realize that death is a gate,” he tells Daigo. “It’s not the end, but a step, a passageway. So I am a gate-keeper, to say good-bye, but also to say ‘See you again.'” (The original Japanese text is below in the Yamagata dialect, beautifully stated by Sasano.) His apt presence in the film, as with all of the “minor” characters, is not minor, but filled with pathos and hope at the same time.

This “gate” symbolism is reminiscent of the Biblical text in which Jesus says, “I am the gate.” (John 10:7) The “gate” opens the door to a new life, and the fire that consumes our bodies can become the divinely-appointed route to sanctification for us. Christians prepare the dead, not so they look good going into the cremation chamber, but to honor the body they believe God calls sacred.

But how many of those who see death as a gate, rather than an end, would dare do the unwanted task? Would we volunteer our artistry to consider those who may be neglected by society, or who do not see death as a preparation, our final destiny? Should we not be the first to engage with the sick (swine flu included) or the dead? Would we be honored to be called a misfit in order to fulfill a sacred call to serve the “least of these?”

Extravagantly and gently, Departures moves us to such emotional and spiritual quests. In Japan, beauty has always been associated with death; it is only now in Departures that we have a re-definition of Japanese beauty as a conversation for persevering, enduring life. It is a rare feast – even among the dead, the accursed ghosts haunting our convenience culture – to taste such lovingly crafted delicacy, a re-humanized vision for death and life.

「スゥ(死)はモン(門)なんすぅ。 死は終わりではなく、次のスッテップへの

Good Friday Sightings

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

While crossing Fifth Avenue and 39th Street I could see, between silver buildings and above the traffic dotted with yellow cabs, the spire of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I had called my wife, who grew up Catholic, about the possibility of going to a Good Friday service. Even as a Presbyterian, I long for Holy Week services. Since this was to be Cardinal Edward Egan’s last Good Friday service, I waded in to St. Patrick’s, docking the TV reporters wanting to interview parishioners, trying not to get in the way of tourists taking photos, and managed to slip in a pew quietly though I had to step over a lady in a white trench coat to get to my seat. “My apologies,” I said to her, and she smiled. “You are very welcome, dear,” she said. The trick to being in a huge church building, I suppose, is not to sit behind a pillar, although at St. Patrick’s, there’s a wide-screen plasma hung vertically on every pillar. The cross at the center of the altar place was shrouded in red cloth, and that red echoed throughout the church, like some abstract remnants of a fashion show repeated over and over in every pillar. As I looked about, all the faces around me seemed rather familiar. But of course, I did not know anyone: they were mostly the faces of ordinary New Yorkers living not in Manhattan, but in Queens and Brooklyn.

The choir with operatic solos opened the service, and Cardinal Egan began the three hour service with a meditation on the “last words of Jesus.” He sat down in the center of the Chancel, as he is still recuperating from his illness earlier in the week. This homily, too, will be his last words at Saint Patrick’s. He is to retire now, with the successor already named (Archbishop Timothy Dolan). With his red cap and flushed skin, he spoke eloquently though the audio sounds bounced about the chamber, disappearing into the vast clerestory full of refracting stained glass windows, forcing me to lip-read a bit. He spoke of the gift of forgiveness, relating the days leading up to Good Friday. “The power and the gift of forgiveness cannot be underestimated,” he stated. Jesus walked the path toward the cross, knowing that every act to forgive, to bring mercy, he would suffer for.

I stayed for about an hour, which meant I lasted barely into the second reading (of seven). But I had promised to treat myself to an exhibit up Fifth Avenue a bit – the extraordinary paintings of Steven Assael at Forum Gallery.

I had dinner with Steven Assael’s pastor, Pete Scazzero of Queens’s New Life Church, once. Pete asked me what I thought of Steve’s work. I told him, “Steve is probably the best painter alive.”

Since the passing of Andrew Wyeth, there are very few painters that come close to Steve’s abilities, to make that grand statement back then reasonable to me now. Possibly Janet Fish and George Tooker would challenge, but the gravitas of Steven Assael’s works, and the profound wrestling that goes on in his paintings, make his exhibit a must-see.

As I said that to Pastor Scazzero, my mind also imagined many of his congregants coming to view Steve’s exhibit. One recent Assael exhibit was of nude figures half-dressed in Goth outfits, with tattoos and cigarettes. The fact that these figures seemed to me to represent contemporary Adam and Eve would not convince many religious folk to champion Steven’s work. Then there were paintings of his dying father in the exhibit after that. Steve’s careful observation of the last days of his father, the utter agony that you could sense with every painting, capturing breath with every sketch, would deprive any the luxury of sentiment that art can merely be peripheral in our lives, and exist just as decoration. Not exactly Sunday School art.

To really appreciate Assael’s abilities, one needs to understand how exiled our culture is from great art. If you walked around the White House today, or any institution that track portraits throughout the centuries, you notice that after about 1930, the quality of portraiture declines dramatically. Starting from the magnificent copy of Stuart Gilbert’s George Washington and David Martin’s animated Benjamin Franklin, the execution and depiction of historical figures wane in quality, and the recent portraits of presidents are dismal efforts, lacking any presence of the person, or conveyance of historical significance. (One notable exception is Aaron Shikler’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis painting in the ladies’ lounge area.)

Stephen Assael, Untitled.
(Image via artnet).

Steven Assael’s portraits come close to the best of portrait traditions, but his subject matters are not conventional status quo sitters or dignitaries. They are ordinary human beings, teenagers, fellow congregants, and subway riders. They are given costumes to wear, like Superman’s cape in one of this exhibit’s paintings, or carnival headdresses and feathers in Costume Party #1. They may be nude figures, faces seemingly too shy to be drawn, and yet so delicately and affectionately depicted, holding a pair of binoculars or a camera.

In this exhibit there’s also a rare self-portrait – a gaze of an artist with his innocence retained, bright and curious eyes looking up at you, as if startled to find you looking back.

And then there is Crowd #1, recently completed, which is the grand centerpiece of the exhibit. In this piece are apocalyptic masses; all seem to be brought there by some otherworldly reason, but not startled and seemingly resigned to their fate. In front, a boy wearing a blue shirt with a large star holds a macaque yawning (or screaming?). Two sisters comfort the boy, possibly whispering into his ear. The masses seem to be waiting – but for what? A triangular hat in the middle with some mystical and magic ritual design catches my attention, but then each face begins to float to the surface like imaginary faces of neighbors, distant cousins, street musicians, or maybe even librarians. They seem so familiar, yet completely unknown to me.

The light shines on all of their faces, though, and even through fear, they all seem to be drawn to it. Then I realized that these faces actually reminded me of the faces I’d seen at St. Patrick’s. They are urban dwellers, ordinary folks who I pass by everyday in the subway cars.

In our lives, we work so hard to dress up and cover the inner malaise, like in the painting of Superman’s costume that fits awkwardly on the man’s lean body; the outfit cannot mask the doldrums of our days, the dark depressions of our psyche. Steven Assael captures our modern tales humbly as a fellow journeyman, depicting the world he sees as a friend, a teacher (his Pratt Institute figure classes are legendary), a husband, a father, and an artist. Though his paintings are dreamlike, they are actually more real than imagined, more hope-filled than depressed. He is a surreal master of reality, and re-humanizes every subject by infusing every portrait with a deeper longing for a world to come.

And so, the way he handles paint rivals any masters of the past, or any contemporary abstract expressionists. He is precise and inventive at the same time, delighting our eyes. With every line of his pencil he loves, with every brushstroke he affirms, and with every work he teaches us what a good painting can do: uplift, challenge, and reveal our exilic condition. Exactly what we need to see and re-experience in a Holy Week, in which an extraordinary death touched ordinary lives, so that cruel death upon the Golgotha Hill would not be the end, but the beginning of a journey. All of us, like in Assael’s paintings, are huddled in urban exile, with a golden light cast ever so gently to reveal our true humanity.

Steven Assael: Paintings & Drawings is on view until May 2, 2009 at Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, Fifth Floor, in New York City.