Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Chelsea Foxwell reviews Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts

Michael Lucken. Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts: From Kishida Ryūsei to Miyazaki Hayao. Trans. Francesca Simkin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 256 pp.

Review by Chelsea Foxwell

The scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee (born 1942) used to tell students of modern Chinese literature that they had a cross to bear. With his hand, Lee mapped the dichotomies of East/West, premodern/modern onto his head, chest, and shoulders as if blessing himself: scholars of modern Chinese literature, he observed, were expected to master all four quadrants, even though specialists in earlier Chinese literature or European modernism were permitted to remain in their respective disciplines. Michael Lucken’s engaging book on twentieth-century Japanese painting, photography, film, and animation comes close to realizing Lee’s sky-high standard for range and interdisciplinarity even as it illustrates the historical reasons behind the pressures that have long beset specialists in non-Western modernism.

Imitation and Creativity consists of two parts. The first, titled “A Historical Construction,” inquires into the development of creation and imitation as concepts. The two major villains are Romanticism and colonialism. Dominated populations were denied the premise of creativity. Any attempt to enter into the dominant cultural conversations was denigrated as aping (mimeticism negatively construed). In this view, which persists even today despite decades of postcolonial theory, “Non-Western artists . . . are confined to either imitating their own pasts or imitating the West” (p. 27).

Lucken wants to break with this model by historicizing originality’s prize status in modern and contemporary culture. Creation and creativity were products of German Romanticism and related discourses, entwined with the “demiurgic” impulse of colonialism, nationalism, industrial production, and the market economy (p. 15). Japanese artists have the right to make art that is not perceived as derivative of a specific body of outside work—and to do so without needing to prove that they are being original or creative. Having repudiated any impulse to apprehend copying as an overarching ethnic predilection, Lucken declines to provide any blanket statement about the roles of copying in Japanese society.

Lucken suggests that scholars’ widespread preference for historical methodology is partly to blame for art history’s obsession with originality or primacy. Arguments associated with primacy are difficult to avoid if one’s strategy is the chronological narrative meticulously documented by sources. While historical-anthropological and philosophical perspectives should, he writes, “work in tandem,” a preponderance of emphasis on the former often leads to an unproductive “insist[ence] on the cause-and-effect relationship” that ostensibly brought a given artwork into being (p. 58). Lucken, by contrast, uses a “philosophical” approach organized by issues rather than chronological vectors.

Primed by part 1, the reader anticipates that the case studies in part 2 will offer new perspectives on imitation, global modernisms, and on the means of transcending the creation-imitation dichotomy. Each of the case studies is exciting, well-researched, and (dare I say) original. All are suitable for specialists and newcomers to Japanese art. 

The relation between the case studies and the part 1 analysis is less than clear. Each of the chapters explores different facets of imitation, but the selection of works and issues does not provide a balanced or systematic overview of the theme. At times, Lucken construes imitation as mimesis. Imitation means something rather different in the chapter on Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live). Lucken does a beautiful job reading the film in visual, nonlinear terms while arguing for the filmmaker’s abiding concern with the themes of “impact, imprinting, marking, and leaving traces” (p. 108). The chapter is a compelling read precisely because it explores multiple valences of the concept of imitation.

The meanings of imitation change again in the next chapter, which is dedicated to Araki Nobuyoshi’s Sentimental Journey—Winter. This work has an unambiguous relationship to imitation: it is a remake of Sentimental Journey (1971). Readers contemplate Araki’s rephotography or reuse of his own photographs, and his painful insistence on the documentation of his own life—in bad moments as in good—as the subject of his work.

Hayao Miyazaki’s popular animated film Spirited Away (2001) is the surprising choice for Lucken’s final case study. The rationale for inclusion in a book about imitation is elusive, although the author does note that “Various elements [of the film] . . . borrow from the folk, literary, and iconographic traditions” (p. 177). This is nonetheless an engaging chapter that centers around a distinctive visual interpretation and makes important contributions to the literature on Miyazaki.

The conclusion presents a rejoinder to Roland Barthes and other twentieth-century writers who set up “the idea of the East as the opposite of the West, as ‘absolute Other’” (p. 201).  There is no East/West divide, no creation versus imitation, original versus inauthentic, or premodern versus modern, but instead, only moments interlaced with earlier moments. Ritual repetition, ghosts, death, traces, and the role of media are the unifying themes of this volume. In this sense, Imitation and Creativity resonates with Gregg M. Horowitz’s Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life (2001). “The task of art [today]: to acknowledge this condition [of modernism’s inability to inherit the past] through mournful yearning, and at least make that transmissable.”[1] Modernism’s repudiated pasts survive as a haunting, something that lingers on to be interpellated by the living.  Ghosts, monsters, and things that return are also things that are sustained by us, unwillingly at times, but also in order to be remembered and transmitted.

Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts bids farewell to the era of Leo Ou-fan Lee’s cross, the name of the father, in favor of Buddhist metaphors of nonduality, time’s cyclicality, and the freedom of ideas to converse on their own terms across regions and temporalities.


[1] Daniel Herwitz, “The Consolations of Art,” review of Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life by Gregg M. Horowitz, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (Winter 2004): 52.