Is Tom Cruise Actually A Japanese Warrior Hiding Out in Taranaki?
Reflections on Yuichiro Tamura’s Milky Mountain at the Govett-Brewster.
I catch my reflection in the House of Mirrors-style exterior of the Govett-Brewster and almost don’t recognise myself. I look like a shiny, mirrored stranger assembled from wobbly body-parts.
The Govett-Brewster building feels very much like it belongs in Yuichiro Tamura’s exhibition. You can fall into the details of double meanings in Milky Mountain / 裏返りの山 until the cows come home – or until the gallery beckons a portal into another dimension (which it does in Tamura’s accompanying comic KAIZO). Being inside it feels like a Murakami novel.
I’m curious to know if Tamura, the Govett-Brewster’s 2018 International Artist in Residence, believes in more than one reality – so I ask him. He laughs and shrugs, telling me that “second realities exist for those who want them.” It’s an answer that’s slippery enough to evade direct questioning.
I’m joking when I ask him, but there’s a lot to unpack across the gallery space that makes me want to question what reality he thinks we’re in. A methodical sprawl to the exhibition’s content elevates both the scientific and supernatural: pages of a comic book depicting Taranaki locals transformed as samurai soldiers are displayed in a glass cabinet; in a recreated cinema Tamura re-investigates the filming of The Last Samurai, narrated by one of the cast’s extras; a large cross-section of wall is removed to reveal the ornate decorations of a former movie theatre; on a banner hanging down in a doorway, Mount Taranaki and Mount Fuji cluster as one mirrored landscape.
Yuichiro Tamura’s career has risen to prominence over the last few years: he is known for the uncanny way he is able to enter a location and act as both a surgeon and observer. Often invited to specific locations, Tamura is instructed by local art authorities to work his magic – splicing together what he uncovers and the memories of a space to form alternate histories. Asked by curator Sarah Wall to make a work in the heart of Taranaki, Tamura drew on the parallels that exist between Japan and New Plymouth to create one of his most expansive exhibitions yet.
Wall presented to him a few strange clues to form the basis of his enquiry:
- The fact that Mount Taranaki and Mount Fuji look remarkably similar
- The fact that New Plymouth was the location where The Last Samurai (the one with Tom Cruise) was filmed, which premiered at the local movie theatre
- The fact that the Govett-Brewster gallery used to be a movie theatre
- The fact that New Plymouth has a sister city in Japan called Mishima
- The fact that Tamura’s previous work was about the novelist Yukio Mishima
- The fact that Yukio Mishima was obsessed with samurai culture and committed hara-kiri – ritual suicide – in 1970.
Whether you know these strange coincidences or not, the fact of their existence rolls out smoothly across this exhibition. References to the novelist can be found in fractured mirrors; and even in a ship in a smashed bottle, a replica of the boat on which Mishima sailed to Greece. Tom Cruise’s windswept, helmet hair pops up across the comic strips. The Govett-Brewster’s mezzanine floor, our entry point to the exhibition, is turned into a replica cinema foyer, identical to that of the Event Cinema where The Last Samurai premiered. On the foyer’s LED bulletin board, the first words we read are “Welcome to the Regent Theatre” in bright red, a nod to the building’s past history. A list of movie titles and names flash by: I spot Mishima and Tom Cruise, among others.
He calls himself a DJ rather than a traditional artist … Tamura isn’t creating art objects directly the way a painter would paint a painting. He’s collating what already exists to create new material.
What Yuichiro Tamura deals with in Milky Mountain / 裏返りの山 is a series of fragments. The magic of the exhibition is in how he connects those fragments together to form distinct entities. He calls himself a DJ rather than a traditional artist, which makes me laugh. But it’s true. Tamura isn’t creating art objects directly the way a painter would paint a painting. He’s collating what already exists to create new material. Tamura likens it to when a DJ plays a record – “nobody goes up and says it’s not your song”. It’s in the reassembling of existing materials that his art exists.
There are a lot of details you can spend hours noting, like a detective pacing for clues. Some can be missed if you skip out on a translation, or aren’t in the know about the complete, comprehensive history of the building. But that’s okay – these are hidden notes, designed to be both overlooked and uncovered. It’s okay to miss out on a connection, because there are hundreds more of them lying in wait.
“He doesn’t call what he does research, he calls it a search,” says curator Sarah Wall. The way Tamura links disparate objects together emerges from multiple sources: mirrored meanings, word play, visual resemblances. Whether by intention or by the freedom of association, broader themes begin to appear when we look more closely. Meanings and repetitions clash like atoms. There’s a depth to his work that feels endless, and I find myself preoccupied with divisions. The lines of architectural floor-plans, hung on the wall, divide the space up into squares and entrances. The mirror Tamura used to train in bodybuilding, cracked by accident in transit, fragments both my gaze and appearance. I look at the slashed squares of his graphic novel, how they cut up the action of bodies in motion. I look at my body in the cracked mirror. I walk past my wobbly reflection outside the Govett-Brewster and think about storyboards drawn for films. Each action struck into isolation.
Whether it’s the mana of the mountain, Tamura’s enigmatic presence or the mineral water I just drank, the space does feel full of something.
As we’re proceeding up the stairs from the mezzanine-turned-movie-foyer, Tamura explains to the group that in Japanese, kai dan (階段) means stairs, but the same pronunciation can also mean ghost story (怪談). It’s as if we are being called to reinterpret the space we are entering as one affected by invisible forces. Whether it’s the mana of the mountain, Tamura’s enigmatic presence or the mineral water I just drank, the space does feel full of something. I feel like I’m swimming in residual meanings that my conscious brain can’t fully grasp. The links made between materials and historical events loop around each other obsessively.
Just as the reflection of a body is warped by cracks in a mirror, Tamura understands that our access points of understanding distant cultures will be varied.
I want to talk about the conundrum of representation, and of phantom pains.
As much as we can follow the trail of connections between New Zealand and Japan – as this exhibition is doing – there are cultural chasms that first need to be addressed. Our understanding of Japanese culture is ruptured by, amongst other things, our distance and our British colonial influences. We inherit Western representations of the country before we know its people, or its artists. Outside the small Japanese population that exists here in New Plymouth, popular cultural touchstones are the main source of reference. The same applies for most of us in New Zealand – think ninja jumping out of a tree with nunchucks, samurai wielding their katana, Pokémon Go, teriyaki sushi rolls.
Just as the reflection of a body is warped by cracks in a mirror, Tamura understands that our access points of understanding distant cultures will be varied. I am impressed by the level of awareness he has around this, and then I remember that having to continually reintroduce who you are and where you come from is just routine reality for people who are perceived as foreign.
“For a Japanese artist to come to this context with a sense of sobriety looking at figures like ninja or samurai…” he states, “[we need to figure out] what can be achieved rather than avoiding those very stereotypical figures.” Our preconceived notions are materials to work with, not to avoid – and the chasm which exists between intention and translation provides a point to introduce a counter narrative.
Tamura centres the samurai at many points in his exhibition. These samurai figures vary, each one a clashed construction of imagination and historical portrayal. The samurai is the Tom Cruise of The Last Samurai, looking foolish, prepared to die for feudal Japan. The samurai is the illustrated face of Tom Cruise in Tamura’s comic, KAIZO, who shows up in Taranaki and accidentally becomes part of a mirror army. In the Milky Mountain film, the samurai is a lone, shadowed figure on horseback clopping around the main streets of New Plymouth. It’s haunting and funny to see him so out of place: thousands of miles away from Japan, hundreds of years out of era. An extra from the cast of The Last Samurai film, interviewed for Milky Mountain, muses that he could also be termed The Last Samurai as he remained behind after the shoot wrapped, the rest of the team flying home to Japan. He now runs a local sushi shop. The Last Samurai is Yukio Mishima, dead by ritual suicide, a ghost story inhabiting Tamura’s artworks.
For these samurai to exist in the same physical space as each other means bending the rules of reality. It means that we as a New Zealand audience are presented with multiple choices as to who a real ‘samurai’ is or what they look like: what Japanese art is supposed to be.
What we see present in Tamura’s work are not just the tangles of our own misconceptions, but the phantom pains of a complex national identity.
When I think of samurai, I assume they are Japan’s past heroes, tangled between noble myth and a poetic reality. Tamura tells me that that’s not quite the case. To him, samurai have a more nuanced, somewhat peculiar appeal. They’re the Japan of the past, or maybe of Western imagination. He explains that “like Tom Cruise”, the novelist Yukio Mishima committing a samurai’s ritual suicide becomes quite comical: as if a historical fanatacist wearing ridiculous cosplay were to take their devotion to the extreme by staging a suicide. At the same time, there’s a sense of awe that surrounds Mishima’s action. To commit your own body, your own life, to your beliefs is beyond my comprehension.
What we see present in Tamura’s work are not just the tangles of our own misconceptions, but the phantom pains of a complex national identity.
For Tamura, the rapid development of Japan after the war is absolutely inseparable from its relationship with America. Post-war Japan was left in a rut: it had lost Western empathy and trust. Aligning itself as a trustworthy economic power became desirable, and blurring the lines between Eastern and Western ideals became tactically advantageous. As mentioned in this Verge article on the complex ethnic identities of anime protagonists, “This is not a story of a country so in love with Magic America that it abandoned its own cultural identity – this is a country that culturally appropriated from the culture that had asserted dominance over it in order to rebuild itself.”
Yukio Mishima, the controversial figure who has shown up in many of Tamura’s works, coveted what was Western. He saw the bodies of American soldiers and aspired to be like them. For him, bodybuilding became another pathway into the samurai way. Therefore, the authentic samurai in this exhibition could truly be Tom Cruise, ridiculed and celebrated, a Japanese spirit stuck in Western heroism. Tamura opens up the possibility for things to exist in complexity, multiple versions of stories all bidding for attention.
I’m struck by the choice of title: Milky Mountain. Over lunch Tamura tells me that cows were only introduced to Japan after US soldiers were stationed on its islands. We sit in a café drinking soy coffees in the middle of Fonterra country. I don’t think the title was intended to speak on New Zealand’s contested agriculture politics, but the skewered nature of history and collective identity strikes me as a mirror.
I’ve been staring at the doorway banner of Mount Taranaki, intertwined with Mount Fuji. Only one of these mountains I’ve grown up with. This point of camaraderie between two maunga feels very far away when I consider the danger of equating both histories as the same.
It’s a complex time to be an international artist, brought to a foreign country and asked to make work about that place’s history. With whom do you align yourself? With whose account and story?
I can feel remnants of barely restrained tension shifting under the earth’s surface. I can’t seem to separate my experience of the exhibition with its surrounding landscape.
Taranaki is scarred with the damage of The New Zealand Wars. As we’re driving through New Plymouth, my Pākehā grandma makes a comment about “territorial iwi”. It’s not intended at all to be an attack, but is emblematic of the dormant hostility some white farmer communities hold against Māori. I’ve grown up with it – blithe assumptions formed by a lack of awareness or education. Taranaki Maunga was only formally recognised as an official name for the mountain in 1985. Before that, it was misnamed as Mount Egmont, its origins wiped away. There is a part of the Milky Mountain film where the ex-cast-member of The Last Samurai narrates acting dead on a field for two days straight. It felt uncomfortable to hear an account of someone pretending to be slain on land whose history is spattered with blood from forceful confiscations. Waitara, the place where hundreds of Māori were slain, is a 20-minute drive away. Parihaka, where Māori mobilised and peacefully occupied, is 40 minutes away. They were mass arrested, their village destroyed by armed troops. I can feel remnants of barely restrained tension shifting under the earth’s surface. I can’t seem to separate my experience of the exhibition with its surrounding landscape.
Our responsibility as settlers is to witness accounts of history that exist outside of what our predecessors have chosen to dictate. Yuichiro Tamura’s exhibition is clever, and expansive. It speaks on the slipperiness of history, on heroes and tragedy. It makes no mention of the land we are standing on. Should it have?
Is it the artist’s responsibility to know everything about us before they step in and tamper with the records? I don’t put blame on the artist for stepping into a space of complex history and following their chosen trajectory.
There’s a slippery history here already, dark and bloody ... What does it mean to invite someone to observe our space and silences here, when our ghosts remain unsettled?
What I wish is that the curatorial team had perhaps given more extensive background context as to whose land we stand on, instead of opting – like many of us – for brief overviews or a careful and peaceable exclusion. I wish we as New Zealand helped our international artists to engage in our Indigenous histories. It would feel uncomfortable for sure, for a visiting artist to run the risk of appropriating an Indigenous culture’s colonial pain. But surely it is still worth facing up to our history and acknowledging it, rather than putting it to the side entirely. I wonder how we are supposed to practice manaakitanga with our overseas guests, if we can’t pronounce that word in te reo properly, let alone the artist’s name? There’s a slippery history here already, dark and bloody. It’s one that has been mutilated and skewered and misrepresented to the point where most locals – let alone observers – can’t wrap their heads around it. Who does New Zealand think we are? What does it mean to invite someone to observe our space and silences here, when our ghosts remain unsettled?
It seems bizarre to cut the length of Taranaki’s history into the lifetime of a building when the ramifications of colonisation still exist as deep welts in the landscape.
I think of how untranslatable certain terms are in other languages, the slipperiness of meaning. The moon rises. I catch myself in the mirror and I’m not sure if I should walk away. The year is 2Q19 but it could be 2QQ3, or maybe another time entirely. But the ghosts aren’t going to sleep.
Milky Mountain / 裏返りの山
Govett-Brewster Art Gallery
10 August – 17 November 2019
This piece is presented as part of a partnership with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. They cover the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control.
Photographs by Sam Hartnett