‘Tenshin’: Portrait of the man who saved Japanese art from the West

Naoto Takenaka embodies the artist, author and teacher Okakura Kakuzo in the biopic “Tenshin”. (First Pond Entertainment)

Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913) – sometimes referred to as Tenshin, and better known in the West as the author of “The Book of Tea” – founded the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, fostering a distinctively Japanese aesthetic at one time. where Western influences threatened to destroy it. It is therefore ironic that “Tenshin”, a biopic illustrating this cultural struggle, is aesthetically flat, coming too close to the tropes of Western biography.

This stark, scenic film is a departure for director Katsuya Matsumura, whose most publicized previous work was the “All Night Long” trilogy of extreme Japanese horror. While these films would have pushed the boundaries of cinematic sex and violence, his latest work is tasteful – to fault.

In one of the opening scenes, young Tenshin (Kensuke Owada) and his mentor, American art historian Ernest Fenollosa (Ian Moore), visit a master painter frustrated that Japanese pigments are insufficient for his vision. Fenollosa procures imported pigments for the artist (which goes against the idea that Western influences were detrimental), applauding the resulting canvas with the statement: “Michelangelo, Raphael could never have imagined such colors! You really are a genius! Against a score of swollen strings, that pivotal moment could have come from any number of conventional American films about artists. If the westernization of Japanese art was a real concern in the 19th century, then the westernization of Japanese cinema seems a fait accompli in the 21st century.

In 1890, Tenshin, now played by Naoto Takenaka (“Shall We Dance”), founded his influential school, telling his students that, in the face of the corrupting influence of the West, it behooves them to “create a new Aesthetic. Japanese.

Yet “Tenshin” is often hampered by its own stilted explanatory dialogue, showing very little of the excitement of artistic discovery that is its ostensible subject.

The film’s most striking image comes when Tenshin’s star student Shunso Hishida (Hiroyuki Hirayama) finds his aesthetic voice while working on a painting. The artist and his canvas are suddenly transported to the top of one of the furious waves that repeat themselves throughout the film, in a heavy-handed symbol of change. This is the only time a Japanese aesthetic seems to take precedence over a Western aesthetic. (It doesn’t matter that the score at this point is reminiscent of English composer Mike Oldfield’s 1973 hit “Tubular Bells”.)

“Tenshin” depicts a period of transition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Japanese art was at a cultural crossroads. How strange, then – especially for a director with a penchant for shock – that this material inspires not irreverent risk-taking but restraint. Tenshin’s life may have been an exciting time for art, but you would never know from watching this movie.

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