Art and culture of Tokyo at the Film Center

"Exhibition on Screen: Tokyo Stories" explores art and culture of the city.


Four hundred years of art and a city combine to make a fascinating film “Tokyo Stories” playing this Saturday, June 3, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Cinematographer, director, and narrator David Bickerstaff jumps off the major exhibition “Tokyo: Art & Photography” at the Ashmolean in Oxford to bring a broader perspective on one of the world’s most dynamic cities.

While the movie includes incisive comments by curators, artists, and the like, the interweaving scenes of the city — in its electric, neon-blinking glory — and long takes of the art in the galleries are what move the film along. Ranging from the 1600s to the present, we see works from the glorious traditional Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige to Manga, Anime, American Pop Art-influenced posters to film, contemporary photography, and artist collective street performance pieces.

The film looks at many themes starting with “The Birth of Edo,” during which the samurai were great patrons of the arts, making what would later become Tokyo into a vibrant cultural center. The countless prints of the “Floating World” of courtesans and kabuki players were fantasies cheap enough for the average person to buy. 

We see the influence of Western culture infiltrating by the mid-19th century when Tokyo opened its doors to foreign trade. The section about the early 20th century, “Modernity and the City,” is particularly powerful as the film looks at pieces by artists who experienced Tokyo being destroyed by bombs when they were children. And, of course, destruction is a stone’s throw away through the centuries with the endless earthquakes and constant threat of future ones that the filmmaker connects to the tradition of conveying mortality in the portrayal of fleetingness of nature and life.

In “Art and Photography,” we learn that after World War II, Japan became the biggest producer of cameras and that photography carries on the long-existing Japanese tradition of telling stories through pictures — think of the graphic novel like Magnas developed in the late 19th century.

“Beauty and Innovation” is a fascinating look at the evolution of the Japanese female. We see how the 18th century idealized, anonymous women — whose allure was depicted through hairstyle, elaborate clothing, and grace of pose — later reflect the Western-style focus on personal, individual beauty. Apparently, too, it wasn’t until the 1990s that women photographers began to gain recognition and are known for creating powerful imaginary imagery of their lives or documenting themselves with fabulous self-agency.

Constantly spliced with pulsating scenes of the teeming metropolis with all its noise and lights, it feels that, although I’ve never set foot in the city, I now have a deeper sense of it thanks to “Tokyo Stories.”

See Exhibition on Screen: Tokyo Stories on Saturday, June 3, at 5 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.