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Fatal MEETS vital - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 11:07 am
Fatal MEETS vital

Rewind. It's 2001 and I'm sitting in a windowless conference room at the Shibuya office of Quattro, my Japanese record-label at the time, playing new material to my A&R lady, Nozomi Daikuhara. It's in a style I call "spooky kabuki", which means it uses some samples from traditional Japanese instruments, and some pentatonic scale melodies.

"Momus," says Daikuhara-San (who works for Quattro's International Division and specializes in releasing American indie bands in Japan), "you have to realize that for Japanese people this kind of music doesn't have good associations. It makes us think of visits to our grandparents, or school trips to museums."



Fast forward. It's 2005. Quattro have axed their International Division, and shifted Daikuhara-San over to a job in DVD promotion. I'm still making oriental-sounding music ("Otto Spooky" owes its "spooky" to the Spooky Kabuki genre I've invented, and boasts at least one pentatonic melody in the shape of "Corkscrew King"), but I'm also supplementing my income with a bit of design journalism. One of my interviewees is another 30something Japanese, Yukinori Maeda of fashion company Cosmic Wonder.

"Although the tender-minded lyricism of his creations, their minimalism and their strict control of color does strike me as particularly Japanese," I report for ID magazine, "Maeda is wary of orientalist readings of his work. One French newspaper reported that Cosmic Wonder's Winter 2005-6 collection contained "large creamy 'biological' cotton fabrics draped and tied, judo or kimono style, ancient peasant motifs, trousers with bandaged ankles, origami-folded white woolens, stitched with gold thread, reworked to become sumptuous ponchos, fake fur coats with calligraphic motifs in aquamarine or cyan..." The rich exoticism of such descriptions goes down well with French readers, but unsettles Maeda. "This judo-kimono-origami-calligraphy thing, these are words which journalists made. These words remind you of Japan, but for me that's fatal, please understand that."

But I'm noticing a shift in attitude amongst young Japanese creators towards trad Japanese forms. Artists and designers in their 20s seem more willing to embrace and even exaggerate the "orientalist" elements in their work than their 30-and-over colleagues. Often this takes the form of a collision (the familiar Japanese cultural splicing form known as "meets") between ultra-traditional Japanese forms (bonsai, screen painting, gagaku) and conspicuously digital production methods. For instance, on June 23rd Ko Ishikawa and Laptop Orchestra will give a concert called 1000 Breaths, trailed as "interactive computer music meets Japanese traditional music".

Sapporo's Cafe Soso, meanwhile, is featuring an exhibition by a young design group called Wabisabi, named, of course, after the traditional Japanese aesthetic focused on the beauty of patina and the dignity of used objects. Wabisabi (all the illustrations on this page are by them) even sport jokey ronin hairstyles in their photos. Last year at Soso they held a show called "Callibonsai", calligraphy x bonsai.

This "meets" formula interests me. One of my first Japanese tours was billed "Momus meets Poison Girlfriend", and throughout the 90s in Japan the most common template for the "meets" idea was that something Japanese would be spliced (by art directors, journalists, designers) with something Western. But that no longer seems to be the case. Now "meets" is as often the splicing of something trad and Japanese with digital techniques. Digital stuff has replaced Western stuff as the "modern" element in the meets formula.

You can actually see this shift in the work of a single designer or design collective. When I first became aware of design group Delaware about ten years ago, they were copying American clip art of surfers and water-skiers. Now, especially in the work of departed partner Ten, they're colliding lo-res jaggy graphics with trad Japanese banners and screens.

Ten's website features a "flower arrangement of the week", and a "garden of hexagon patchwork". His big idea is to distill traditional Japanese art and craft forms to their most minimal digital signs, so that they can be displayed on iMode cellphone screens.

I wonder if such stuff still leaves a dusty taste in Daikuhara-San's mouth, or if she's changed with the times? For a rising generation of Japanese designers, it seems, making references to traditional Japanese forms is no longer fatal, it's vital.

16CommentReplyShare


imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 10:05 am (UTC)

Aha, another opportunity to link to one of my favourite songs ever, Delaware's

Graphic Designin' in the Rain


ReplyThread Parent
nickink
nickink
Nick Ink
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 11:09 am (UTC)

Great piece, Nick!


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wringham
wringham
Robert Wringham
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 12:25 pm (UTC)

Yo, dogg.

My latest blog entry ("Visual Stuff") features a Momus quote.

I heart Momus. The 'Nervous Heartbeat' video is super, by the way.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 01:23 pm (UTC)

I often wonder if the resurgence of Japanese-ness - or perhaps more correctly Pre Meiji era Japanese-ness- isn't somehow an offshoot of the popularity of Japanese things in the west. did it take Madonna and those like her (perhaps even yourself) promoting the value of Japanese things to make it all viable again?
In the same way that many Japanese are ignorant of their history there is a profound ignorance of their culture before the restoration of the emperor. That made me sad when I first arrived. It also made my friend Kobayashi-san sad that cowboy culture is all but gone in the US.
So what can you do.
しようがない?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 01:50 pm (UTC)

I think you're absolutely right, this is happening because the Japanese are now almost as alienated from -- and therefore enthralled by the exoticism of -- their own cultural heritage as we Western tourists are. In other words, the Japanese consume their own culture in an orientalist fashion.

I wrote about this at some length in The Japanese are almost Japanese.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 02:20 pm (UTC)

Wow, another enjoyable post! Thanks for that.

Yeah, in every history I have read I am so enamored with Edo era society. The government seemed so much more socially progressive (in a way) then the current one, and yet the general opinion is that it was much worse, because the pre-war government was so atrocious.

Also interesting there is a whole series of adds with some cute russian girls playing blonde European tourists promoting Hokuriku (http://www.jreast.co.jp/tabidoki/tvcm/index.html/)


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 9th, 2006 02:46 am (UTC)

people still dress like cowboys while others laugh at them for being "country" or "redneck."

hipsters in l.a. love to wear vintage cowboy boots w/ ripped up 80s inspired dancewear, lots of gaudy jewelry and ironic stances.

in japan, i think the latter is happening. it's sampling the old or sampling something out of context to make it contemporary. i don't know if "orientalism" can truly exist anymore or they pull another context into the present.

i can't believe people still use that word like there's some fantastic split in psychology and being between the "oriental" and the "occidental." i do come from a different generation, grew up w/ a more international scope eschewing stifling labels (while respecting the multiple histories from which i came.)

i wouldn't necessarily say i'm east or west though i'm sure i encompass both. it's more an organic process, blending. even saying east-west is odd. it's very suzie wong, m. butterfly, fu man chu, and miss saigon all rolled into one. i hated all of those depictions of east-west interaction when i was young. now, i see subtler forms of them.


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rodneywhodunnit
rodneywhodunnit
C.M.H.
Fri, Jun. 9th, 2006 02:56 am (UTC)
the above

was my typing. i wasn't logged on so it came out anonymous.


ReplyThread Parent
qscrisp
qscrisp
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 03:02 pm (UTC)
exquisite

Browsing in Foyle's the other day (and buying a copy of the collected Bruno Schulz), I was reminded how patronising Western critics still are towards the Japanese arts. Idly picking up a volume of Mishima I noted the usual blurbs from Western reviewers about how it had "the exquisitely delicate proportions of a Japanese garden" or something like that. I even remember reading somewhere how "exquisite" is one of these shibboleths that a Japanese writer fears. And the covers are bound to be ukiyo-e and so on. It's as if someone decided to review, say, George Orwell entirely in terms of being as sturdy as an English oak, with the modesty of afternoon tea, and then putting a Constable on the cover.


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rroland
rroland
rroland
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 04:46 pm (UTC)
Re: exquisite

qscrisp,

i would like to send you a cd, please email me at littleboywhocould@hotmail.com


ReplyThread Parent
qscrisp
qscrisp
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 05:59 pm (UTC)
Re: exquisite

Certainly.


ReplyThread Parent
bricology
bricology
bricology
Thu, Jun. 8th, 2006 05:04 pm (UTC)

Another very interesting entry!

Isn't there a commonalty between the Japanese reclaiming and romanticizing selected elements their past, and "folktronica" which mines and re-contextualizes elements of Western culture (both near and long past) for new material?


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Fri, Jun. 9th, 2006 02:48 am (UTC)

as much as i dislike posting antagonistic comments, as much as I enjoy your writing and as much as i'd like to believe your arguement i feel compelled to ask for a reality check.

you're basically placing your japonisme and yukinori maeda's in the same box? fatal or vital ?
don't know Nozomi Daikuhara but i have some reason to believe she might have also been reacting to your, dare i say, somewhat simplistic and over-enthusiastic take on the stuff at the time. the 'visits to our grandparents, or school trips to museums' is one of those things that's been around since meiji. Tougi Hideki was selling gagaku and gagaku-meets- records massively (as massively as a gagaku artist can) to all sorts of audiences at exactly the time of your meeting.
enjoyable reading though.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 9th, 2006 08:56 am (UTC)

Oh, it's not antagonistic to disagree, it's debate, and it's welcome!

I'm slightly confused by "you're basically placing your japonisme and yukinori maeda's in the same box?", though. Maeda is against orientalism, he's the one who describes it as fatal. I'm placing his anti-orientalism in the same box as Nozomi Daikuhara's, and saying that I've detected a new strain of orientalism in the form of people like Wabisabi, an orientalism which comes from Japanese people, but is allied with foreigners' views of Japan.

When it comes to national myths, "simplistic and over-enthusiastic" is inevitable. I mean, tell me the "complex, hard-headed and realistic" reading of this tale of how the sun goddess who founded Japan was lured out of hiding in her cave:

"Ama-no-Uzume had an idea. She hung a mirror on a nearby tree, organized a celebration and performed an erotic dance before the cave. It made the other gods laugh so loud that Amaterasu became curious and peeked out. She saw her own reflection in the mirror, which startled her so much that the other gods were able to pull her out and convince her to return to the sky."

As for things "being around since Meiji", this question of how long has this been going on? is always a problem. In a thought on this last year, I suggested:

"Think of the big narrative, with its braggadocio and its obvious overstatements and oversights, as a structural skeleton on which to hang the really important stuff: anecdotes, names, examples, incidents, enthusiasms, quotes, facts."


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 9th, 2006 11:13 am (UTC)

"you're basically placing your japonisme and yukinori maeda's in the same box?"

ok, guess that's not what you're doing yet there was something odd/awkward in the way you position yourself first as protagonist then as commentator. as protagonist you do put yourself in the same box as maeda (who as you say, on a different level, you do box with Nozomi Daikuhara: supposedly anti-orientalist) and wabisabi (who on a different level you more or less box with yourself-as-protagonist: orientalist friendly) - enough structures.

now when you say "I wonder if such stuff still leaves a dusty taste in Daikuhara-San's mouth" we don't really know because for all we readers know her only contact with orientalist japonisme was via your spooky-kabuki, and let's face it you're not gonna get big in japan with that be it 96, 2001 or 2006, (it's admiring that you tried and let go of all your previous winning cards) so i think this might have been what Daikuhara-San was saying in a polite way. From little i saw you might be slowly comming to a japaneseness (a deluzian becoming-japanese rather, which spooky-kabuki is embaressingly not) that might be somewhat closer in spirit to yukinori maeda's (however much he might dislike me saying this)

i said "being around since Meiji" not the dawn of time. that was a major rupture point (the begining of japanese post-modernism -_-)


ReplyThread Parent
record_play
record_play
Fri, Jun. 9th, 2006 07:16 am (UTC)

i think you missed out on notions of privy and legitimacy... japanese sampling older traditions may seem more consumable or "legit" than a scott sampling these same traditions.

"these are words which journalists made" -- I think what Maeda is saying is, these are words which foreigners made.


-just a passing observation


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