Hanran Exhibition Review at the National Gallery of Canada

Art, Ottawa
“Hanran, a Japanese word meaning flood, overflow, or deluge.” These words reflect the period of immense change in Japan that occurred throughout the 62 year Shōwa Era (1926-89). The new exhibition, Hanran: 20th Century Japanese Photographyat the National Gallery of Canada, organized by the Yokohama Museum of Art, offers us a glimpse into that tumultuous time in Japanese society. 

The exhibition takes us through a recession in the aftermath of a great earthquake in 1923, WWII, political and military upheaval, high economic growth and a bubble economy. The tensions between Japan’s traditional and ultra-modern society, increasingly influenced by the West is visible in these beautiful and sometimes saddening photographs.

The first part of the exhibition is a lot of street photography, showing Japan’s modern society and the tensions between traditional society and Westernization occurring in the 1930s. The New Photography movement is embracing in Japan with photographers taking to the streets shooting extreme close-ups, elevated angles and creating photomontages.


Hamaya Hiroshi, “Two Geshia: One with Japanese Hairstyle and the Other with Western Hairstyle, Ginza, Tokyo”, 1936


Morooka Koji, “Marunouchi in the Morning”, 1935

Shibuya Ryukichi, “Ginza Photomontage”, n.d.

The section of the exhibition devoted to wartime in Japan and the aftermath of the nuclear attacks was particularly moving. Until 1952 that the true devastation of the bombings and the trauma wasn’t revealed to the public. The photographs are haunting and makes the viewer confront the trauma endured by the Japanese people. It reminds us that the nuclear bombings in Japan at the end of WWII should be the first, last and only use of nuclear weapons.


Installation view


Hamaguchi Takashi, “Ms. Fukuda Sumako, a Witness for the Anti-nuclear Group”, 1966


Installation view

The portraits of Japanese society people, artists, authors, actresses, workers, politicians, businessmen, children, prostitutes and just ordinary people are some of my favourite works in the exhibition. How people are portrayed whether they are a willing subjects posing or someone snapped on the street is always fascinating. Seeing these portraits really provides us with a snapshot in time of who these people were, how they lived and what was important to them.


Hayashi Tadahiko, “Mishima Yukio”, 1951


Tokiwa Toyoko, “Singing a Popular Song Together”, 1954

Notably a couple of female photographers were included in the exhibition such as Tokiwa Toyoko’s work (above) who photographed the red-light district of post-occupation Yokohama with U.S. servicemen. Having these female photographers included is very important since there are many photographs in the exhibition that are portraits of women by men. Having the female lens focus on women in the exhibition adds an important perspective in examining this time period in Japan.

Morimura Yasumasa, “Self-Portrait (Actress): After Hara Setsuko”, 1996

Photography became a contemporary art medium in 1960s with new art publications emerging. The artwork above by Morimura Yasumasa is the only colour photograph in the whole exhibition. It really stands out and makes a statement about contemporary Japanese art and society that embraces the avant-garde and seeks to challenge perceptions.

Hamaya Hiroshi, “Ms. Cathy Kinoshita Chizura, Beauty of Shōwa Period, Fukuoka”, 1976

Overall the exhibition was very interesting and emotionally touching, specifically the stark portrayal of the aftermath of the nuclear bombings in Japan. Having seen very little Japanese photography or art in general this exhibition is a great opportunity to see some important works that are on display for the first time outside of Japan. The exhibition design was very well done as well. It is very simple and muted as to not distract from the photographs. It also takes influence from Japanese simplistic design principles without being overt. The text panels on the slightly translucent screens evoke traditional Japanese shōji room dividers and doors ever so slightly. It provides just enough Japanese design that it works well in the exhibition without being tactless.

Kanemura Osamu, “Keihin Machine Soul”, 1996

There is still plenty of time to see the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, especially with the cold weather starting. So see it before it’s gone on March 22, 2020.
Friday, October 11, 2019 to Sunday, March 22, 2020
National Gallery of Canada

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