“DONE at the city of San Francisco this eighth day of September 1951, in the English, French, and Spanish languages, all being equally authentic, and in the Japanese language.”
What was “done” 50 years ago at the War Memorial Opera House was the signing of the Treaty of Peace between the Allied Nations and Japan. Now as the anniversary approaches this Saturday, the commemoration goes beyond political talking heads.
Organizers behind the US/Japan 21st Century Project, the umbrella name for the 50th anniversary ceremonies, have invited the artistic community and through them the public to celebrate a half century of peace.
Events from a variety of local arts organizations range from San Francisco Symphony’s dedication of its free outdoor concert to a photo exhibit at UC Berkeley to a special “Spirit of Zen” performance at the museum.
A treaty anniversary may commemorate peace, but it also recalls a history of warfare, tragedy and capitulation. In the case of Japan, this history continues to spur an often bitter political discourse which still tries to wring degrees of responsibility and reparation.
While solemnity will be the prevailing mood at the opera house ceremonies Saturday, many believe the artistic celebration is appropriate for the occasion.
“I think all sorts of incredible hardship in every part of the world (and) in many ways are the gestation of the incredible outpouring of creativity,” points out San Francisco Performances president Ruth Felt. “That’s the way humankind deals with it. It’s not surprising to see this kind of art, given Japan’s history.”
That creativity is in evidence for today’s performance by Rosy CO, the Tokyo troupe whose style incorporates Western classical ballet, French modern dance and butoh, the modern dance genre which arose from the devastation of the second world war.
Most arts organizations are not focusing on the themes of the war itself, but rather on some aspect of Japanese aesthetics, such as the kimono exhibit at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in Fort Mason or the showcase of recent Japanese films at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archives.
Despite or perhaps because of the politically conscious Berkeley environs, film collections curator Nagai is careful to point out that the film series isn’t to be taken as “a pure endorsement of a treaty or security pack.” Except for one activist video which probes questions of nationalism and identity, “neo-eiga: New Japanese Cinema” does not go into politics. At most, the series, which is in its second year, offers theater-goers a chance to see the contrast between the an older generation of film-makers whose aesthetic output was so informed by the war and a younger generation who “don’t seem to have a connection to history, at least not consciously,” Nagai says.
On the other hand, the dance performance, “Past, Present, and Future Wishing Moon,” specifically addresses Japan’s relationship with the United States as well as other Asian countries with which it had been at such deadly political odds 50 years ago. For instance, the show, which will travel to different Bay Area locations in its Friday-through-Sunday run, includes a modern Chinese dance troupe based in Tokyo.
“The arts are universal,” says Mary Sano, director of the Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing in San Francisco. “The arts are such an important aspect of human relationships, (and) exploring and celebrating how countries have come together.”
Sano’s own background speaks to this hybridization, both personally (her father was American, her mother Japanese) and professionally (her teacher was taught by Isadora Duncan’s daughters). An outsider in her native Japan because of her mixed heritage, Sano now acts as an emissary between the two worlds.
“We are artists, we relate through movement,” she explains, “so I really want ask as a dancer and artist to get to know each other through movement and try to get closer.”
This artistic cross-breeding extends to productions such as the Theatre of Yugen’s premiere of “Crazy Horse.” The tale of the Sioux warrior was initially “conceived as a response to the turning of the millennium,” says artistic director Yuriko Doi, but its themes of cultural continuity and unity perfectly suited the 50th anniversary project.
The blending of Native American performance and Noh theater echoes the Asian Art Museum’s partnership with the Goethe Institute for “Spirit of Zen.” The irony of having German installation and sound artists create a Japanese performance art piece was not lost on Emily Sano, Asian Art Museum and the project’s cultural committee chairman.. The association also underscored the philosophy of the 21st Century project.
“If you can sit down and break bread with your former enemies, isn’t it a great thing?” asks Sano (no relation to Mary Sano). “We can recognize the goodness and artistic people and humanity of other people who are different, and yet share the commonalities of the human experience across national borders.”
Vera H-C Chan can be reached at 925-977-8428 or firstname.lastname@example.org.