Rediscovering Mitsutoshi Hanaga, photographer of Japanese post-war counterculture, the avant-garde and protest movements

The recent deaths of Genpei Akasegawa, Takuma Nakahira, Seijun Suzuki and Toshio Matsumoto were reminders that the generation who crafted so much of the visuals of the post-war era in Japan are slipping away. And with this reminder comes another: the importance of documentation.

Fortunately we continue to rediscover incredible examples of it. The Mitsutoshi Hanaga Archives Project is an ongoing endeavour to catalogue and share the remarkable collection of images left behind by the prolific yet little-known photographer, covering fascinating aspects of the post-war counterculture scene.

The late Hanaga’s archive of some 30,000 negatives — much of it unpublished before — is being faithfully sorted by his son in association with Aoyama/Meguro in Tokyo and Gallery Kochūten in Nagoya. This resulted first in an exhibition at Art Fair Tokyo in 2014 as well as two past shows at Aoyama/Meguro in the summers of 2015 and 2016. This year the archive was again exhibited at March’s Art Fair Tokyo and now at NADiff a/p/a/r/t in Ebisu until May 28th. These latest events are commemorating the publication of the current culmination of the project: a bilingual book in the 1,000 Bunko series showcasing some of the best photographs in the collection, complete with an essay by the researcher and curator KuroDalaiJee.

mitsutoshi hanaga photography book

Hanaga’s lens captured much of the anti-art, angura (underground) theatre and dance scenes, especially the burgeoning Butoh movement and such troupes as Tenjō Sajiki. Indeed, surveying his vast archive is like browsing a Who’s Who of 1960s and 1970s Japanese counterculture and experimental art: Hi-Red Center, Zero Dimension, Yutaka Matsuzawa, Tatsumi Hijikata, Jūrō Kara, Shō Kazakura, Genpei Akasegawa, Shōmei Tomatsu, Kenji Kanesaka, Arata Isozaki, Masunobu Yoshimura, Shūji Terayama, Dadakan and so much more. There are candid shots from parties and events, carefully posed shots, documentation of happenings and performances, and photojournalism of the protests.

One of the ways I try to dissect and unravel counterculture is to think of it in terms of social and artistic strains, which may well frequently overlap. The “social” side to the counterculture has a lot of competition: there is a mountain of photographic documentation of the street protests and campus movements of 1968-69, so this may seem standard territory to many. The “artistic” side is invaluable here because Hanaga covered the milieu as well as happenings and performances, for which there is often very little documentation since the artworks were ephemeral.

mitsutoshi hanaga zero dimension

These avant-garde figures are familiar now but it is only recently that many have become popularly known. The Provoke photographers, for example, and aspects like Butoh were long renowned, but various others have been rediscovered just in the past couple of decades. For an extended time, the discourse ignored many sections of the scene. In Japan, it is scholars like KuroDalaiJee who have pioneered the recognition of some of this movement, and overseas it was the diligence of William Marotti and Reiko Tomii and others.

Hanaga, who became a freelance photographer in 1962 and passed away in 1999, wasn’t content just to rub shoulders in the comfortable demimonde of the artists and performers. He also went to the campuses to see the barricades and covered the rallies by New Left groups, which is why his collection is so special: there are, after all, plenty of photographers who documented the protests and more than a few who documented the artistic counterculture — but photographers who did both so vividly are rare.

Similarly to Minoru Hirata, Hanaga documented a lot of overlooked movements in addition to the bigger names. As such, his archive yields shots of lesser-known groups such as Jusatsu Kitō Sōdan (the monks who protested environmental pollution in the 1970s and whose activities are continued today by an anti-government group called JKS47) and the commune movement Yamagishi-kai. The viewer can also gain a sense of the wider counterculture and atmosphere on the streets of Tokyo: there are young people inhaling paint thinner or there’s Hare Krishna and the New Age movement, as well as shots of legendary sites like Fūgetsudō and Sōgetsu Kaikan. Much of the extolling of post-war counterculture is Tokyo-centric (or even Shinjuku-centric) and it is refreshing to view the photos Hanaga took elsewhere around the country, where much was taking place that has now been virtually lost.

In fact, its comprehensiveness and sheer scale may be one reason the Hanaga archive was not exploited for so long, despite it being a veritable Aladdin’s Cave, as well as the fact that its greatest strength is also a weakness of sorts: Hanaga couldn’t be pinned down easily and sold as “the street riots photographer” or “the performance art photographer” or “the dance scene photographer”, because he was looking at it all through his viewfinder.

Somewhat making up for lost time, Hanaga’s work has been exhibited in Japan and overseas several times since the archive project started in 2014. We are still riding the wave of a surge of interest in this field of late. It started around 10 years ago, when a spate of books, films, exhibitions and events emerged, fuelled by nostalgia, the onset of ageing of the participants and perhaps the post-2008 economic malaise reawakening many to what had come before.

As noted above, the pioneer in Japan was probably KuroDalaiJee, who focussed on body art and performance art for which documentation like Hanaga’s is essential. His 2010 veritable doorstopper of a book, Anarchy of the Body: Undercurrents of Performance Art in 1960s Japan, is indispensable reading for anyone interested in this topic. The “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” exhibition at MoMA in 2012 also came with its own formidable catalogue and a second book of translated resources. By now we were indisputably in the midst of a boom. There quickly followed the “1968 Japanese Photography” show at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 2013. That year also saw the release of William Marotti’s Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan, which centres on the work of Akasegawa. Aside from his notorious court case for his fake money art, Akasegawa is most famous for his participation in Hi-Red Center, whose work was the subject of a major retrospective in 2014.

Mori Art Museum’s MAM Research series of mini exhibitions recently showcased the activities of the collective Video Hiroba, which included Toshio Matsumoto, and there was also “Great Crescent, Art and Agitation in the 1960s — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan” in 2015, which attempted to look at parallel events across East Asia in the context of counterculture in the 1960s. The archival exhibition was ultimately something of a failure because it did not allot the required space for the mammoth theme, though one day a more suitable opportunity will surely arise.

The achievements of the Provoke collective, which included Nakahira, were investigated in an exhibition, “Provoke: Between Protest and Performance: Photography in Japan 1960-1975”, which ran in Vienna, Paris and Chicago in 2016, and was accompanied by a weighty catalogue. The gallery Zen Foto has also published photo-books of the work of individual photographers who documented the New Left protests movements, including Hiromi Watanabe and Takashi Hamaguchi.

Reiko Tomii’s Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan came out in 2016, examining the relatively obscure work of Matsuzawa, The Play and GUN. (The cover of the book features a photo by Hanaga, while Tomii also did the translations for the Hanaga book.) Matsuzawa’s unique conceptual interventions were stimulatingly presented at Ota Fine Arts in an exhibition this spring, “From Nirvana to Catastrophe: Matsuzawa Yutaka and his Commune in Imaginary Space”, which also included a bilingual catalogue, Strange Illuminations: Matsuzawa Yutaka from Civilizational Synthesis to Anticivilization Uprising, with a contribution by Marotti.

Last year also gave us Cultural Responses to Occupation in Japan: The Performing Body During and After the Cold War by Adam Broinowski. There are also various other monographs out there, sitting in university libraries for the assiduous graduate student to find them, not least Miryam Sas’s Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return (2011) and Thomas R H Havens’s Radicals and Realists in the Japanese Nonverbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism (2006).

Of course, in all this there are under-appreciated figures. The cinematographer and photographer Yasuhiro Yoshioka also captured much of the experimental arts scene and his early photo-book Avant-Garde ’60s (1999) is a gem. Likewise, the MoMA show didn’t come out of nowhere. Alexandra Munroe was responsible for an exhibition called “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky” at the Yokohama Museum of Art, Guggenheim in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Art in the mid-1990s. Similarly, there was also “Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970” at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2007. The catalogues for both exhibitions remain useful resources for researchers.

But to return to the new Hanaga book, there is a curious irony in its publication in that it was subsidised by Arts Council Tokyo in spite of the original controversy of the counterculture it disseminates. Should we be surprised? After all, Tadanori Yokoo, Birdie Hilltop the Shinjuku thief himself, was given his own museum by Hyōgo Prefecture and his merchandise is sold at Beams, while Aomori is delighted with the clinking tourist yen brought in by Shūji Terayama’s museum. It seems that with age, counterculture not only mellows, it institutionalises. But perhaps Patrick Henry said it best: If this be treason, make the most of it.


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