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A Bright, Shiny, Fabricated Family Life

Mothers, Sons, and Daughters in the Work of Mako Idemitsu

written by Hiroko Hagiwara

Mako Idemitsu’s 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.

The Bonds of Love Between Mother and Son

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.

Marriage of Yasushi The mother-son relationships in these stories are obscenely close, leaving the sons’ new wives out in the cold. This interdependence between mother and son has a history; it did not develop overnight. The screen of the TV set inside the house reveals the violent behavior of the fathers, loyal company men and the resignation of the mothers. Before Yoji was born, his mother, still hoping for the best, plaintively begs her husband, “Please make me happy.” This request is eventually transferred to her son. Yasushi’s mother secretly grows to hate her husband, who treats her like maid, but she is determined to protect her household and expects great things of her son. The contempt and despair she feels toward her husband are countered by the obsessive expectations she places on her son. As long as she is depending on someone to “please make me happy,” however, she can never be truly happy. Ironically, she resurrects the myths of a “happy home” and a “woman’s happiness” by becoming dependent on her son rather than her husband. In this empty home, the mother is excessively fond of her son, and behaves in a revoltingly seductive manner.
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?

The Mother as a Representative of Paternal Authority

A mother can also become an oppressor of her daughter. The Great Mother series takes up the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.

YumikoYumiko (1983), for example, shows the factors behind one mother’s oppressive behavior. Yumiko’s mother, unlike the mothers of Yasushi and Yoji, has a job and the sense of responsibility and pride of a working woman. Her statements are logical and allow no room for criticism. She is an unrelentingly fussy housewife and keeps the house in perfect order. This is what makes her so oppressive. When she is teaching her grown-up daughter how to take in laundry and fold it, she acts like a very strict animal trainer. Yumiko remains immature but rebels against her mother by running away with a man she meets in the street and eventually having a baby. Even then, the mother stays calm, coolly sending her daughter off with the declaration, “This is what you have decided.” As might be expected, Yumiko’s shaky marriage falls apart, but the story end with a premonition that the problem will be resolved by the mother’s capable hands. Yumiko’s mother clearly does not understand her. Yumiko is not allowed to mature and cannot escape being influenced and punished by this impeccably capable woman. Why does the mother oppress her daughter so?

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.

The Reality and Unreality of Kae

An 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).

Kiyoko’s Situation These two stories deal directly with the patriarchal system of the art world as well as showing how paternal authority is exercised over daughters in family relationships.

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.

Kae, Act Like a Girl It is impossible for the viewer to be a comfortable and passive witness to what is happening . Kae’s reality and the odd elements of unreality clash with the reality known by the viewer, heightening his or her awareness of the extreme violence and cowardliness of the familiar words with which Kae is pelted. The radical strength of Idemitsu’s work shakes viewers up so that they can no longer feel at ease with reality.

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?

Hiroko Hagiwara teaches the history of the philosophy of art at Osaka Women’s University. Her writings include Kaiho e no Meiro – Ivan Illich to wa Nani mono ka(Liberation or Maze? -A Critique of Ivan Illich), Impact Shuppankai; Kono Mune no Arashi – Eikoku Burakku Josei Atisuto wa Kataru (This Strom Raging in My Heart – Voice of Five Black Women Artists in Britain), Gendai Kikakushitsu; Mo Hitotsu no Kaigaron – Feminizumu to Geijut(Another Art Theory – Feminism and Art), cowritten with Midori Wakakuwa, Shokado; and Bijutsushi wo Tokihanatsu(Setting Free Art History), cowritten with Taeko Tomiyama and Kazuko Hamada, Jiji Tsushinsha. She has translated Old Mistresses(Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker) Shinsuisha. Vision and Difference(Griselda Pollock), Shinsuisha. Her English articles are in Disrupted Borders(ed. Sunil Gupta), Rivers Oram Press, and Generations and Geographies(ed. Griselda Pollock), Routledge.