ANPO, the new documentary by Linda Hoaglund, is a solid old fashioned art history doc with a lefty heart and a necessarily revisionist head. That said, it tries to do too many things at once. And though it is confused, it shows a lot of thrilling footage and documents a loose art historical movement, hitherto, as far as I know, not tied together for screen representation.
Hoaglund wants to have her toast buttered on all sides and has somewhat disingenuously claimed that the film is about this treasure trove of “lost” art, rather than to what the title of the movie baldly lays claim – ANPO. ANPO is the US-Japanese Mutual Security Treaty. Enacted in 1960, under very questionable circumstances, it coalesced leftist forces into huge mass anti government and anti US demonstrations. It is this history – and a whole lot more – that informs ANPO’s (the movie) cast of visual, theatrical and film artists’ reactions to and interpretations of the times and events.
Using documentary footage, feature film clips, contemporary talking heads (artists and pundits), an lots of static shots of truly amazing paintings, photographs and drawings, the film careens back and forth throughout post war Japanese history, attempting and often succeeding in making connections between its disparate sources. There are moments that work wonderfully. The whole remains heartfelt, but a without clear direction. Is this a history lesson? Is it really only about art? Is the legacy of ANPO only what we’re talking about here? What about the artists that are dealing with the legacy of WW II? What about the younger artists who carry on a tradition of political art? How do they really fit into this big picture?
Of course it is a big picture. Perhaps far to much to be contained in 88 minutes. One cannot blame Hoaglund for trying. But still the movie fails to contain a central thesis. Hoaglund herself maintains that its mainly about the art. But context is everything for this art and the necessary inclusion of historical background enriches it.
So, let’s talk about the art. Put simply, much of it is amazing, some derivative. Echos and forshadowings of Goya, Diego Rivera, Leon Golub, Philip Guston, Sue Coe and the long western tradition of socially engaged art abound. The rift of the war allowed subsequent generations to create a monumental and often grotesque reaction to the horror of abused power and how that power managed to maintain itself well after the US occupation. It’s a continuing legacy. Among a very strong selection of artists are Nakamura Hiroshi, Ishii Shigeo, Inoe Chozaburo, Abe Gosei and a host of others. The images, particularly on the big screen can be overwhelming. As a primer on artists well worth re-discovering ANPO works fine. As a primer on postwar Japanese politics ANPO is equally serviceable. As a tribute to a number of artists who worked diligently, passionately and without much reward for their obsessive and important work ANPO works admirably. ANPO is a movie that works despite itself, largely because of the (many) great pieces of content and information.