Akio Takamori's doctor says the chemo isn't working and the cancer is untreatable. The last time we spoke, the Seattle artist was feverishly making work about what it means to apologize while also facing the realization that the last American president of his lifetime would be a man who never apologizes for anything.
Late in the election, Takamori had begun to narrow in on a specific visual spectacle of our presidential politics: the isolated heads of the two nominees as they debated each other on TV. They were seen in boxes set side by side, so viewers could watch one react while the other spoke.
"Watching the debate, Hillary and Trump next to each other on the screen, I see the masculinity and the femininity harden into battlegrounds," is how Takamori described it.
He took that clash as he perceived it and melded it into single, bizarre figures. He began sculpting male heads with female bodies. The male heads were middle-aged: sad, aging, balding, wrinkled, fat-necked. The female bodies were smooth, curvy, and young, based on a single idealized Greek nude, Venus—a woman invented by a man. She is not a woman; she is the projection of the man at the top. Takamori depicted his own face on one of the heads.
I had heard Takamori was making these, so I called him the week after the election, when he was in New York with his wife, Vicky, visiting their daughter, Lena. Takamori said he felt his time getting short. He said he considered the new sculptures to be a continuation of a series in progress called Apology. He began working on it in early 2016—a series of drawings and sculptures of men apologizing.
In our conversation, Takamori joked about how a misogynist's "worst nightmare would be to have a female body." He joked that Donald Trump's worst nightmare would be to try to grab a pussy and end up mauling his own, as he would if he were built like Takamori's sculptures. Yet Takamori had put his own head on a Venus, too, wearing a sad, regretful expression, not one of anger.
The idea for Apology came when Takamori was reading a New York Times in his Seattle home and saw, on the front page, a photograph of a Japanese man apologizing. Captivated, he searched the web for more pictures of apologizing men, Western and Eastern. He found Japanese car-company CEOs, who often bowed, and whom photographers seemed to enjoy portraying at strange angles. He clipped those out, as well as pictures of the historic moment in 1970 when German chancellor Willy Brandt dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in silence before a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazis in Warsaw.
What were these men feeling? Why did they believe in the ritual of public apology? And what did we think of them? What did we want from them?
Takamori started drawing these men. And sculpting them out of clay. He drew one especially hangdog-looking Japanese CEO from the news. The man sits slumped toward a bouquet of microphones. In the drawing, his lips are parted and slack, his eyes hooded. He looks like the character in a movie who's taking a beating from a crew of other guys, at the moment when the other guys take one last look before delivering the knockout punch. Takamori doesn't seem to sympathize with this guy much; the guy looks sorry for himself. Okay, his attitude suggests, here's your stupid apology.
There are two perfectly Takamorian details in the portrait: the microphones and the drips.
Takamori softens the forms of the microphones to such a degree that they look fleshy. The CEO ends up looking like he has a faceful of penises. Hey, isn't that the association we make with a leader who "bends his knee" to apologize, anyway? At the same time, Takamori's overloaded brush has left long trails down the CEO's face that are suggestive and melodramatic and wonderful. Takamori, a fan of the Japanese erotic art known as shunga, has always celebrated sensuality in his work, even when it has made people uncomfortable.
All of the men Takamori chose for Apology were his own age, 66, or older. He could relate to them, in a sense. He was taking stock, looking back over his life. Visiting the studio in September, I asked Takamori whether he had any amends to make of his own.
"I wonder," he said, looking down at the dozens of drawings of men spread out on the table. He didn't answer the question.
The Apology series premieres at James Harris Gallery in February, and even as Takamori struggles to stay alive, he's poking at the biggest beehive in the modern world: What do men express when the acts of men, or masculinity itself, are questioned?
Born in Japan just a few years after World War II, Takamori always knew about remorse.
Japan had been renowned for its aggression, but after 1945 it was stripped of its weapons, demilitarized, and left to form a new identity. When Takamori was still a boy, his father told him that a handful of doctors acting on government orders had vivisected American prisoners of war, experimenting on them until they died, at the same hospital where Takamori's father was a doctor. He hadn't known what had taken place under his nose. At the end of the war, Time magazine circulated a photograph of the big American hero, US general Douglas MacArthur, towering over the humiliated Japanese emperor Hirohito. Takamori wasn't sure what it would mean to grow up to be a man.
President Barack Obama, the 43rd man to serve as president of the United States, took office in the midst of a period of historical reflection that one book, written in 2008 by 21 scholars in law, politics, and human rights, called The Age of Apology. It began with the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the 1990s, and continued with apologies from Western governments, corporate leaders, and even popes publicly apologizing for atrocities and cruelties.
Right-wing pundits regularly derided President Obama as The Apologizer, even while admitting he didn't actually apologize much. "He may not often say 'I apologize' explicitly," the superhawkish George W. Bush official John Bolton wrote in the New York Post, "but his message is always clear, especially since he often bends his knee overseas, where he knows the foreign audiences will get his meaning."
If the presidential election of 2016 was a referendum on various cultural issues, at least one of them was the apology itself. America was getting far too apologetic, some people seemed to think.
"Being Donald Trump means never having to say you're sorry," one news story began. This was after Trump told Jimmy Fallon: "I fully think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong."
Trump, therefore, said he "will absolutely apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I'm ever wrong."
Bolton wrote about Obama's "bended knee" diplomacy in May 2016. Takamori was in the thick of Apology then, and paying close attention to the matter in question because Obama was headed to Japan. He was about to be the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima since the US bombed the city in August of 1945.
Obama did not, as a matter of record, apologize for Hiroshima. He also did not "bend his knee."
But is it "the bigger man" who makes an apology, or does he "lower himself" by doing it? Our idioms reveal our association of size with value and importance. For Takamori, who at five foot four is shorter than his white American wife and many American men, scale is personal as well as political. He has been on the receiving end of size sexism. He noticed in one news photograph of an apologizing CEO that the photographer took a position from way down low as the man bowed deeply. Takamori exaggerated the effect in his drawing, so that the Japanese man in the rumpled business suit looks monumental, his head small and distant, yet silly, his butt thrust in the air.
But that same man's face is tired and pained. He is truly sorry, and Takamori has sympathy. The bowing CEO seems like a good man stuck at a distorting scale.
Takamori has always used scale to exact justice. I think of this when I pass by his Three Women at the entrance to the upscale grocery store Whole Foods in South Lake Union, where three oversize Asian female figures, one holding a baby on her back, subtly loom over (and diminish) the businessmen passing by. Once, Takamori made a version of General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito where the Japanese man looks even smaller, amplifying the racism of the original symbolism so that you can't miss it. For another series years ago, Takamori entangled the bodies of interracial couples to form single ceramic vessels, and the men were sometimes smaller than the women and in more passive positions. (Pro tip to artists: Nobody wants to buy male nudes. Or at least that's what Takamori told me, with a rueful laugh.)
Takamori's apologizers all say one thing, whether sincerely or in self-defense: What have we done? The tone of voice they use to ask the question ranges as much as it does for ordinary men who find themselves called upon to apologize, either for their own actions or the actions of their forebears.
In September in his airy studio, on small tables, Takamori had four sculptures of German chancellor Brandt kneeling. Put together, they were a study in contrasts. They ranged in size from extra small to large. Takamori was still testing how much glaze he would use, how shiny he wanted them to be. When they shine, the sculptures become more like objects than like images, he explained. An apology has an outer form and an inner feeling, like a Takamori form and its painted surface. He was still working out which Brandt he wanted to depict, the political leader or the man whose knees buckled from heartbreak that December day.
Brandt's apology at the Warsaw Ghetto was a proxy statement. He had fought in the resistance against the Nazis. He had not been one of them. Yet he was a German, and the crime was his nation's toward its own people. Still, what does it matter if one man takes a knee? Isn't it hubris to mount the Holocaust on your shoulders for a few minutes before you get up and go about your day? Brandt was later given the Nobel Peace Prize, and this moment is thought to have contributed. But people also attacked Brandt for doing it.
When Takamori was a college student in 1969, Tokyo University broke out in intense protests over the American presence in Japan and the US's war in Vietnam. Takamori had gone to study industrial design because it was the only program that had ceramics, and there has never been any question that Takamori was born to make ceramics. Industrial design wasn't independent enough for an artist, but what he got out of Tokyo University was a taste of being embedded in collective history. Surrounded by various sects and generally sympathetic with the left, Takamori was not sure where to fit in, so he joined what seemed like a harmless Communist Manifesto reading group.
One day, the leader said the right wing had broken into campus and it was time to take up arms. He ordered the readers to gather up sticks for fighting. Takamori thought, "I can't just hit the person with a stick!"
Trying to picture Takamori in hand-to-hand combat is impossible. He looks too closely at people, like the men whose half-crying faces he searches in Apology. When men open up, he starts drawing and sculpting.
It feels like the world needs Takamori now, especially now.
"I was looking at Trump and Hillary next to each other on the television, and that intensity, we're going to carry on that for a while," he told me. "I feel right now that the world is so unknown, and nothing seems predictable, but even though Hillary didn't become president, we are looking at the Venus now and realizing that was a man's vision. There's no return for the old chauvinism way. That's why male is angry. But you cannot change it."
Takamori could only talk for a few minutes. He wanted to be with his family, and he didn't want to talk too much about his work anymore. He just wanted to keep making it.