A Coke and a Smile: Tsunehisa Kimura’s ‘Americanism’

 Exhibit / September 15, 2020

Americanism, 1982

Object Name: Americanism 
Maker and Year: Tsunehisa Kimura, 1982
Object Type: Photomontage
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Unlike his younger compatriots Shusei Nagaoka, Hajime Sorayama, Eizin Suzuki, and Hiroshi Nagai, who broke into the American illustration market with glistening airbrushed futures and breezy, pastel-colored beach scenes, Tsunehisa Kimura’s output was absurd, darkly surreal, and often apocalyptic. He remembered the devastation wrought by the war, and aimed his photomontage squarely at imperialism, colonialism, and, during the 1980s, a locked-and-loaded America whose leaders were playing an increasingly dangerous game that might have enveloped the entire globe.

Kimura’s most recognized piece is probably Waterfall, circa 1979, which shows Manhattan beset by, or rather integrated with,  Niagara Falls. The scene evokes disaster, but there’s something serene about it too—the riotous natural world and the built environment appear to commune, as is the goal in traditional Japanese architecture; not so in America, where we build things to keep nature—including other people—out. New York is frequently Kimura’s muse: New York encased in crackling ice; New York encased in fire at the end of the world (or is it the violent beginning of the world?); an ocean liner (is it the Titanic?) stands in for the Hindenburg, running aground on the Empire State Building.

There’s nothing serene about Kimura’s cover to the 1984 Midnight Oil LP Red Sails in the Sunset, either, showing a bombed-out, scorched-earth Sydney. A simmering red sun settles in the dust, similar to the black sun that precedes the atomic explosion in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1982-1990). And his cover for Space Circus’s Fantastic Arrival (1979), where American astronauts caper about on the Moon—while on fire—is similarly uncomfortable. Waterfall, in various edits, has also appeared on several LP covers.

Americanism is a pointed critique of both WWII-era (the photos are from the ’40s) and ’80s America, consumed with consuming and not much else, though the world (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) may burn. The ironic nonchalance of the juxtaposition is, once again, striking. The Statue of Liberty is drowned (a long-standing visual motif in sci-fi) in a 1977 photo, and an untitled piece from 1984 shows the noble lady once again, this time hurtling over (or towards) the New York skyline under the power of six American ICBMs—which huddle beneath her skirts!

Kimura’s work was collected in 1979’s appropriately title Visual Scandals by Photomontage, as far as I know the only such collection published in the US.

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