works from 1980 on are frequently set in an uncomfortable and artificial home
environment. The artificial space, sometimes oddly light and bright, sometimes
cold and dark, inevitably contains a television set. It is a place where both
males and females are caught up in strange parent-child relationships marked
by vanity and resignation, convenience and calculation, dominance and dependence.
The images on the television set inside the space show the history of the family
which has led up to the present situation.
One often hears the phrases "enter the home" and "go out into society." However, the home is right in the middle of society, not outside it. In fact, after looking at Idemitsu's work, one is tempted to say that the home is society. The home molds us into the kinds of men and women expected by society. A standard feminist slogan dating back to early Women's Lib holds that "The personal is political" and Idemitsu is an artist who pays attention to the political nature of personal situations. She depicts the home as a place which trains people into male or female roles in family environments based on a strict sexual division of labor. She is not interested in a generalized form of home life which is the same in all times and places, but rather a specific type of home created under peculiar historical and social conditions, the home which has functioned as the basic social unit supporting the high growth economy of Japan since the mid-1960s.
Two works in particular, The Marriage of Yasushi (1986) and Yoji, What's Wrong with You (1987), offer food for thought about the Japanese society of the last thirty years.
The father, the corporate warrior who has toiled in the service of high economic growth, is transformed into a dried-out husk of a man when he reaches retirement age. Yoji's father, who has been repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, sits submissively in the background eating what he is given. Yasushi's father, so arrogant in his younger days, has become a mild old man who sits around idly making banal comments. Neither father engages in conversation with the wife who has been living with him all these years.
The ideal family of the period of high economic growth was headed by a workaholic man whose first loyalty was to his company. The ideal wife, dependent on her husband, stayed home and took care of the house and children. After these men and women have done their duty, what is left for them? Will Yasushi's young wife, who is disgusted with the way her husband thinks only of his mother, end up living for her own son and placing excessive expectation on him? Or has there been a breakdown of the social and economic conditions which caused this empty pattern of family life to be repeated, allowing the young wife to take a different path than Yasushi's mother?
A mother can also become an oppressor of her daughter. The Great Mother series takes up the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.
Yumiko's mother enjoys a way of life that she is anxious to protect. A number of signs indicate that she belongs to the "right" class. The job she holds indicates a high level of education, her manner of speaking is peculiar to the upper class women who live in the Yamanote area of Tokyo, and she shows great deference toward her husband as head of the household. She does not lose control over her daughter's foolish actions or cry with her. The way in which she maintains the pride and manner of the class to which she feels she belongs creates pressure on the daughter. This class consciousness of the mother is determined by the family or, more specifically, by her husband, the patriarch of the household who she addresses in respectful terms as "Father." The mother acts as a capable executor of patriarchal authority, keeping the daughter within her own jurisdiction and ultimately attempting to make her into a proper member of the same social class.
This discussion of class distinctions in Idemitsu's work may be questioned, although her treatment of problems of the patriarchal system is often acknowledged. In my view, her greatest accomplishment is her presentation of patriarchal oppression in very specific terms of time, society, and class rather than simply in terms of male-female relationships.
In Idemitsu's latest work, Kae, Act Like a Girl (1996), she portrays the difficulties encountered by a woman attempting to be an artist as she had done earlier in Kiyoko's Situation (1989).
The same parents who are concerned that their son amount to something either place no expectations on daughters or actively prevent them from fulfilling their wishes. And a young woman gets the same kind of message from the art teachers, dealers, and critics who make up the world. They suggest that she gracefully give up trying to be an artist. For a girl, painting is only a hobby. A woman can be creative by having children. You should stick with painting particularly feminine subjects. Idemitsu did not invent these bits of advice which are given to Kiyoko and Kae. She took them from her own experience and that of an older sister who was a painter as well as interviewing a number of young women painters and art students in developing the script. Any woman who knows the art world would readily admit having heard many of the lines included in these works.
The chief strength of Idemitsu's work, however, does not lie in an accurate portrayal of reality. There is no point in simply reproducing a familiar reality in creating a work of art. Even the most painful realities can become familiar and acceptable, and most people avoid becoming more aware of the reasons for their pain. Idemitsu's images are presented in a manner that makes the audiences uncomfortable with familiar realities, placing them at a distance where they can be considered more objectively.
In Kae, Act Like a Girl, these statements, typical of the reality confronted by women artists in the real world, are combined with unreal elements such as the highly artificial sets and the odd behavior of the characters, making audience ask, "Just what is going on here?" This approach takes the viewer out of ordinary reality, making it possible to grasp Kae's reality and one's own reality in a more critical way. An odd sense of unreality is induced by the art teacher's idiosyncrasy of sticking his finger in his pipe at the beginning of the work, the way Kae and her mother operate a number of different television sets, the awkward manner in which some actors speak their lines, strange pauses in conversations, and the highly artificial quality of the white, brightly-lighted set.
In contrast with Kiyoko
and her tragic fate, Kae seems likely to make a future for herself as an artist.
Not only that, but there is a glow in the eyes of Minoru's new girlfriend as
she watches Kae which suggests that she will also eventually surpass Minoru.
It is hard to guess the future of the sons, Yasushi, Yoji, and Minoru, but the
daughters in Idemitsu's works, from Yumiko to Kiyoko and Kae, are definitely
growing stronger. One wonders if many of the daughters raised in Japanese homes
during the latter half of the nineties will be like Kae? Or will they be able
to take a path which is less difficult and circuitous?