MFA Shows Off Showa Style

Back in 2004, Gwen Stefani made her debut as a solo artist with a posse of Japanese females in tow. Christened the Harajuku Girls, they introduced the American public to a particular brand of the Japanese fashion scene, though its representation was severely skewed. The style originated in Tokyo’s eponymous district and draws upon countless chronological and geographical influences, both aesthetically and commercially—European luxury brands regularly vie for the attention of Harajuku consumers alongside local designers. The potential origins of this uniquely Japanese amalgamation of cultural pressures are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in “Showa Sophistication: Japan in the 1930s,” which is on display until November of this year.

The Showa period of Japanese history, which translates to “period of enlightened peace,” lasted from 1926 to 1989 and witnessed a government-sanctioned boom in urban renewal via tourism, sporting, and even fashion. The exhibition utilizes these three topics in order to shift the works into separate but relatable categories. In the 1930s, though Japan had only opened its ports to Western trade mere decades prior, nationalistic ambition generated the impetus to fashion Tokyo after the capital cities of Europe with a hope to rival them in opulence and global status. The campaign included an official bureau of tourism, a national park system, improved transportation, and department stores large enough to include swimming pools and zoos.

The entire exhibition consists of paintings culled from the collection of Hosokawa Rikizo, a businessman and avid art collector who founded a luxury hotel at the start of the Showa period. Since the works were commisioned, produced, and exhibited for Japanese audiences, many visitors will appreciate the use of quotations from Frank H. Lee, an Englishman living in Tokyo at the time, in order to address apparent discrepancies and familiarize viewers with the subtext within the images. For instance, a large screen painting of a rooster, lacking in significance to Lee, is explained to be a symbol of courage and strength, especially meaningful in an increasingly militaristic state. A cormorant perched on a rock, seemingly a simple depiction of nature, actually represents a tourist attraction.

With 17 paintings and two artifacts, the moderately-sized exhibition attempts to emphasize its theme of tradition manipulated to serve commercial interests, though in some cases the claim lacks evidence. A screen depicting a waterfall is said to represent that nation’s desire for tourism, though the author’s own words indicate only a personal attraction to the subject matter. Similarly, a supposedly symbolic representation of a bamboo forest appears to be only marginally related to tourism, though the plant’s functional and traditional purposes in Japanese history are indisputable.

The paintings containing human—especially female—subjects function as the exhibition’s centerpiece. The moga, or “modern girl” was the Showa period’s crucial cosmopolitan. Working in shops, partaking in sports, or purchasing the latest Parisian fashions, these girls make manifest the clash of present and future in images where kimonos are paired with severely bobbed hair. Titles like “A Stylish Beauty Dressed in a Kimono Standing Beside a Decorated Christmas Tree” and paintings of women wearing mid-calf length daydresses and cloches aboard a sailboat resemble a vintage issue of Vogue, encapsulating the feeling of the era’s unprecedentedly rapid Westernization.

The works within “Showa Sophistication” capture the unbridled optimism of a nation, yet harbingers of the forties are visible even amongst the characteristically radiant imagery. Two elaborately decorated under-kimonos reveal upon closer inspection that they contain varied portrayals of Japanese military activity among the tourist spots. A stylish female skier on a snowy slope is accompanied by captions describing the 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games that never came to fruition. Though the exhibition struggles at times to maintain a strong narrative, it successfully casts light on an often overlooked, idealistic portion of an otherwise destructive era—romantic images that clearly influenced modern Japanese Harajuku style.