Dr James Fox looks at the art and culture of Japan.
Part 1: Nature
James journeys through Japan’s mountainous forests, marvels at its zen gardens and admires centuries-old bonsai, to explore the connections between Japanese culture and the natural environment. Travelling around Japan’s stunning island geography, he examines how the country’s two great religions, Shinto and Buddhism, helped shape a creative response to nature often very different to the West. But he also considers modern Japan’s changing relationship to the natural world and travels to Naoshima Art Island to see how contemporary artists are finding new ways to engage with nature.
Part 2: Cities
He explores how the artistic life of three Japanese cities shaped the country’s attitudes to past and present, east and west, and helped forge the very idea of Japan itself. In Kyoto, James reveals how the flowering of classical culture produced many treasures of Japanese art, including The Tale of Genji, considered to be the first novel ever written. In Edo, where Tokyo now stands, a very different art form emerged, in the wood block prints of artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. James meets the artisans still creating these prints today, and discovers original works by a great master, Utamaro, who documented the so-called ‘floating world’. In contemporary Tokyo, James discovers the darker side of Japan’s urbanisation through the photographs of Daido Moriyama, and meets a founder of the Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, whose film Grave of the Fireflies helped establish anime as a powerful and serious art form.
Part 3: Home
The clean minimalism of the Japanese home has been exported around the world, from modernist architecture to lifestyle stores like Muji. But the origins of this ubiquitous aesthetic evolved from a system of spiritual and philosophical values dating back centuries. James visits one of Japan’s last surviving traditional wooden villages, and the 17th-century villa of Rinshunkaku, and reveals how the unique spirit of Japanese craftsmen turned joinery into an artform – creating houses without the need for nails, screws or glue. Exploring some of the traditional arts of the Japanese home, James also investigates attitudes to domestic culture in modern Japan, meeting photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki, chronicler of Japan’s crowded cities and tiny apartments. Other highlights include a performance by calligrapher and artist Tomoko Kawao and a visit to the hometown of architect Terunobu Fujimori.