A Lost Masterpiece, Now Found in Tokyo's Metro

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(c) Taro Okamoto Memorial Foundation

Taro Okamoto's Myth of Tomorrow mural at Tokyo's Shibuya Station

Trying to stop amid the stream of commuters at Tokyo's Shibuya station — through which 2.3 million people pass every day — can be a risk. Even stepping out of the flow to grab a paper at one of the station's many convenience stores can be a struggle. But as of Monday, there's a new reason for Tokyoites to take a detour from their well-worn paths: revered Japanese artist Taro Okamoto's Asu no Shinwa ("Myth of Tomorrow") now has a permanent home near the Keio Inokashira line in the Shibuya station.

True to Okamoto's trademark expression — "Art is an explosion!" — Myth of Tomorrow depicts the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, drawing comparisons from some critics to Picasso's Guernica, which illustrates the 1937 firebombings of that Spanish city. (In fact, the two were contemporaries, and Okamoto is often compared with Picasso.) The white-tiled station wall has thus transformed into a burning landscape, swirling with hues of red, yellow and black.

Though the mural was begun nearly 40 years ago, this week's installation is the first time the work has been seen by the public. A colorful 30-m long painting of 14 panels, Myth of Tomorrow is a remarkable window into the early vision of Okamoto, who died 12 years ago. The struggle of its recovery and restoration over the past two decades is just as memorable. The painting was commissioned for the lobby of a luxury hotel in Mexico City in 1968, but financial problems halted the hotel project, and the finished mural was never displayed. Sometime during the 1960s, the mural went missing for decades.

The specter of the Second World War remained strong as Japan rebuilt itself during Okamoto's painting years in the middle of the last century. Wanting to explore these themes in his own work, Okamoto moved to Mexico, where he felt that the cultural integration of life and death would allow him to do that more freely. When Myth of Tomorrow was commissioned, his secretary and life partner, Toshiko Okamoto, questioned his decision to represent such destructive imagery. "He told her, 'Because it is Mexico, this will work,' " says Akiomi Hirano, Toshiko's nephew and the producer of the Shibuya mural project for the Taro Okamoto Memorial Foundation. The Mexican hotel developer who commissioned the mural, Manuel Suarez, immediately took to the concept. "Taro wanted the Japanese to surmount the misery of the past rather than to retract inwardly — to blossom outward and look ahead. That was a radical concept in 1967. He was probably the only Japanese person who even considered that."

But after its initial good reception as a concept, nobody ever saw the finished work. After Okamoto died in 1996 at the age of 84, Toshiko spearheaded a search for the mural. When it was located in September 2003 in a warehouse outside Mexico City, its surfaces deeply cracked from exposure, she made the recovery, restoration and return to Japan of Myth of Tomorrow her last project as director of the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum. She paid a fraction of the millions of dollars for the painting that Hirano says were spent transporting and restoring it. When it came to bringing it home, he says he and Toshiko explored every possibility of transporting the mural intact, but "even the pros couldn't do it ... I threw up my hands." Eventually they halved each of the original seven sections. The day Hirano returned from Mexico to Tokyo in 2005, Toshiko died. She had orchestrated the mural's return but missed seeing it arrive at Japan's southern port of Kobe by just two weeks.

Hirano and others took over the project, tackling the bigger question of how to restore a piece of art that nobody had ever seen in its original condition. "A work is a living thing. Everything ages with a certain dignity, but no one had seen the mural's life," says Hirano. "So the decision was made to restore the mural to the beginning — to the original." Restorer Emile Yoshimura and Hirano struggled to realize what they thought might resemble the original and were pleased with the result.

That is now what passersby can see in Shibuya, a district where young Tokyoites thrive, thinking little in their day-to-day lives of what their grandparents lived through. Tokyo's Shibuya was chosen over other locations in cities that wanted the mural for display, and it will remain there for at least 10 to 20 years before the new Shibuya station, designed by architect Tadao Ando, is built. "It is about regeneration," says Hirano. "Japanese people won't see themselves as victims, but carry a sense of pride and take a step forward. I hope they're inspired by it." In a museum, Hirano says, the mural would have a limited audience. But in the station, the work can speak to anyone. That is, anyone willing to step out of the rush and take a moment to look at a new work of art, 40 years in the making.

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