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click opera - Japan Culture Lab: the comedy of superlegitimacy
February 2010
 
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Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 08:43 am
Japan Culture Lab: the comedy of superlegitimacy

Is there an uncanny valley effect in faux-didactic comedy films which dictates that the closer they come to real instructional videos, the more boring they are -- until they hit the sweet spot where they could almost pass for the real thing, and suddenly yield super-subtle, super-dry comedy? That was certainly my experience of the excellent "analog baroque television" series Look Around You, which I originally watched thinking it really was a made-for-schools science series from the 1970s. (Expert pastiche graphic design skills are so central to this comedy genre -- think of The Day Today -- that we could categorize it as "graphic design comedy".)



The Japanese Tradition is a series of nine short films (available on DVD, but most of them are on YouTube on here and here) by Japanese comedy group Rahmenz, and released by Japan Culture Lab. The films are directed by Namikibashi, which sounds like a pseudonym, and may be a famous graphic designer or advertising man flexing extra-curricular muscles (could it be Mr Shindo Mitsuo from Contemporary Production?). They're impeccable pastiches of cultural instruction videos -- How To guides to the correct use of chopsticks, paper-folding, sparring, the etiquette of family holidays, how to make rice balls, the way of tea, the rituals of apology, the eating of sushi and how to clap in time.



The aesthetic is satisfyingly didactic: Helvetica features heavily, as do black backdrops, complicated science textbook-style diagrams (showing, for instance, the exact angle from which to blow into your hot teacup) and simplified ideal-type scenarios shot in studios -- the exact point where advertising photography meets Platonism. The budget is surprisingly high -- the paper models in the origami film must have been hell to make! -- and the production values excellent. As a result of this painstaking lushness, the films -- though they take their precision a few steps into parody -- do convince. As one blogger speculated, it makes you wonder whether the audience at this year's Berlinale Film Festival got the joke, or whether the films (in competition in February) passed as slightly alienated tributes to Japanese culture. Is this all part of what I've called the Japanese are almost Japanese phenomenon, by which national pride rises precisely at the moment when people forget their national customs and become "internal tourists"?



Anyway, I love the look of these films as much as their dry cultural comedy. I watched them again last night after writing an article celebrating the austerity and elegance of Reclam pocket editions for Austrian art magazine Spike, and they hit all the same buttons as the books do. The style chimes with a sensibility I've referred to -- talking about graphic designer James Goggin and artist Liam Gillick's work -- as "ostentatiously non-demonstrative". (If I were making a pantheon of the "ostentatiously non-demonstrative" I'd have to include slideshow artists Alexandre Singh and Brian Dewan, and the excellent British film director Patrick Keiller.) It's a thoroughly elegant, aristocratic way for comedy to go -- in the direction of affection, respect and subtlety rather than gonzo nihilism, misanthropy and noisy aggression.



Why not hit all my fetish buttons, already? We could even say the Japan Culture Lab films are what comedy is capable of becoming under conditions of superlegitimacy.

34CommentReplyShare


(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 08:41 am (UTC)

If you head along Meiji Dori from Shibuya Station towards Ebisu, "Namikibashi" (並木橋) is on your right and will take you straight into the heart of Daikanyama.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 09:50 am (UTC)

Daikanyama is where Contemporary Production has its office. More evidence for the Shindo Mitsuo theory?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 09:56 am (UTC)

Actually, the actors in the films are the same ones who do the Apple computer ads in Japan. More of their work here.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 10:09 am (UTC)

The Rahmenz Get-a-Mac ads are here.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 11:00 am (UTC)

But don't all cultures "re-import" versions of themselves as seen by foreigners? I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing. To a certain extent, we're all the sum total of what other people think we are.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 11:11 am (UTC)

Well, you seem to be saying that there's the "authentic" culture, and then there's the "fairground mirror" ie distortion of how foreigners see that culture, which then gets reabsorbed into the culture. I don't see it that way. Absorbing versions of oneself from the outside is part of what culture does. You can't make these distinctions.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 11:15 am (UTC)

I had a meeting with Holger Hiller on Monday, and this was one of the topics that came up: how he was expressing a certain idea of Germanness through the music he was making in London in the 80s (and also in Palais Schaumburg, a Neue Deutsche Welle band) and how he wouldn't feel comfortable doing the same thing today, in Berlin. He now feels as post-national as his son (half-German, half-Japanese, and living in London).


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 11:45 am (UTC)

Why were you meeting with Hiller? Is there a collaboration in the air?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 11:49 am (UTC)

I was meeting him because I'd never met him, and we both live in Berlin, and I just emailed him suggesting it! But I had three things to propose:

1. An article about him for a magazine, in the format of a conversation between us.

2. Getting his first album re-released through Cherry Red in the UK.

3. See if he had any new stuff he wanted to put out.

As for whether anything will come of this, watch this space!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 11:57 am (UTC)





(I dread to think what the Momus_lolz girls are going to do with those...)


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC)

Momus, I hate to say it but you really need a makeover. The long thin gingery hair just accentuates the rapidly receding hairline. The whispy grey/white beard doesn't do much for you either. You're of an age now where you're going to look infinitely better if you smarten up a bit. Get yourself a sharp short haircut, lose the beard, buy yourself a funky suit and you'll look so much better, and younger to boot.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)

Feels a bit mean and cruel, but I have to agree. Momus, you are awesome and you are a handsome man, but the "I-am-a-twentysomething-hobo-slacker" look is not doing you any favours. Men in their forties can look really good, but not that way.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 02:56 pm (UTC)

What are you doing in Texas, Mom?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC)

Um, I'm in Texas as a stylist on a shoot, if you must know. Trust me, I really do know what I'm talking about. I've worked with tons of men your age.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 03:08 pm (UTC)

What magazine?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 03:15 pm (UTC)

Not for a magazine. A publicity campaign for a well-known fashion brand.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 03:25 pm (UTC)

Ah. Well, you'd be welcome to try styling me. But really I style myself. Sure, it doesn't always look great -- that Holger picture isn't one of my favourites. This is what I prefer to look like:



But the thing with personal self-styling, as with cultural self-projection, is that the "errors" are part of the identity. You can't separate them. And so the "errors" can't really be called errors. It's just culture-of-Momus, or culture-of-Japan, or whatever. That said, I wouldn't say no to a bit more hair, if you could invent a way to do that.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)

These days, you can get hair implants that look utterly realistic, even to a professional eye like mine. But it costs a bomb. Otherwise, rule of thumb for people with thinning hair is short hair good, long hair bad. Actually, your hair doesn't look too bad there, but you've probably just caught a good angle... I think you'd look considerably better with shorter hair. Clotheswise: I think you should abandon the thrift and actually get something that fits. Look at your trousers in that photo. They're all over the shop. You're nice and slim for your age, so you'd look so much better (and younger) in fitted clothes. Beard makes you look jowly, you'd look five years younger without it, or if you insist on it, keeping it to a very close trim. As for sandals, well, maybe that's the German influence...


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mandyrose
mandyrose
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 03:39 pm (UTC)

Keep that beard on there, mister!!


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Sat, Sep. 1st, 2007 12:28 am (UTC)
The Navy Look

If you where on the coast of Maine or Nova Scotia the woman would be on him like flies!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)

It's his I'm-in-a-relationship-and-I-don't-care look. I bet if Momus was single he wouldn't look half as scruffy.


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 05:47 pm (UTC)

I actually didn't think of making anything with those pictures, but thanks for the idea!

And what's with the "dread"? Do my creations make you sad? :( :(


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 05:50 pm (UTC)

No, they make me gay!

BOOM BOOM!


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 05:53 pm (UTC)

Hmmm, then I'll put dozens of women in the picture! It would be a reflection on your real life! Because we all know you have dozens of women lined up outside your door there in Berlin. Probably hundreds.

THEY GO BAM BAM! AND BRING THE HOUSE DOWN!


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 06:06 pm (UTC)

By the way, this was recorded 2 minutes ago and I didn't even tell him what to say!


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Sat, Sep. 1st, 2007 02:07 am (UTC)
http://melon.ctime.jp/

it's Japanese name "Anime", defining it as something distinctly Japanese. Because anime is now a world famous example of Japanese culture, the Japanese have re-appropriated anime as something distinctly Japanese.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 12:42 pm (UTC)

Talking about this with Holger, I basically laid out the position that the way we now experience cultural identity is synthetic. This is a perverse twist on the rockism idea, but the people who use national identity most in their work (and I used the example of Holger's "Tiny Little Cloud", which samples Brecht-Weill in the mid-80s and therefore sounds very "German", but of course Brecht-Weill is itself already a big sampling machine, pastiching American pop music of the 1920s) are the people who make national identity plastic. Authenticity and inauthenticity, the plasticity of a national culture and its supposedly-immutable realness, the local and the global, these are, in each case, two sides of the same coin. It's precisely the people (Morrissey singing about being "the last truly British people you will ever know") who conjure national identity who synthesize it. It's the rockists who are actually the most anti-rockist! Like "folktronic Texan" George Wanker Bush!

Or think of the Neue Deutsche Welle. It's got a German ring to it, hasn't it? That word "Deutsche". But what it really means is New Wave (a global movement) played out in the specific local context of Germany. So that national identity is a synthetic one (as synthetic as Holger's Weill samples -- he also sampled Nick Cave's faux-Germanic "The Carnie" -- a German sampling an Australian's idea of Germany), the kind of "authentic" local culture people lay out for tourists.

The people who sound most rockist and rigid about cultural identity actually turn out to be the ones doing most to make it plastic and flexible. Of course, it's the law of unintended consequences; they don't mean to undermine authenticity. They're actually very vested in it. But we should probably just let them get on with undermining it by making their pastiches.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Sep. 2nd, 2007 11:13 pm (UTC)

Natural and synthetic are only relative terms. What I mean here by "synthetic" is a more reflexive, self-conscious, other-oriented sense of national identity. Its two agents: the media and tourism. We are now "French" (or Scottish, or Japanese) for others, not for ourselves. Scotland is now "the Scotland Experience" -- consumable at reasonable prices, in small packets of time. Scots are as alienated from it as anyone else, because we all have our heads in placeless media like TV and the internet most of the time.

So there's now less and less gap between the way Scots consume Scotland and the way tourists consume it -- they both understand the nation through the same media channels. Scots (or Japanese) are "internal tourists", and the tourists are "external tourists". Same difference; same alienation, same formulaic, fixed views.

If you wanted me to commit to when this shift occurred, I'd say generally "the postmodern period" and specifically since about the mid-80s. There was a very noticeable cleaning up of city centres, shifting of problematical populations to the peripheries, Disneyfication. Edinburgh's Hogmanay is a good example: it's now a micromanaged mega-spectacle with giant video screens and a barricaded city centre. It used to be an anarchic free-for-all in which citizens kissed each other. Has national perception changed? Absolutely. More here.


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maybeimdead
maybeimdead
Maybe I'm Dead
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)

"People just don't get it. Creating equality and diversity isnt about awarding minorities the right to double standards or preserving a nation's "cultural identity" through laws and schemes... racial labels and ideas of what those labels mean do nothing but divide us and stifle the natural progression of cultural cross polination, creating a static fairground of national/racial pride and what it's supposed to be."

But this doesn't speak to anything about the inherent power relations that continue in social outcomes. For example, is there not an asymmetry between the numbers of white male/non-white female couples than there are with "non-white male/white female couples"? Aren't the policies you're critical of really just a matter of creating greater equality of opportunity in social standing?


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maybeimdead
maybeimdead
Maybe I'm Dead
Sun, Sep. 2nd, 2007 09:28 pm (UTC)

"Equality will come when society starts to realise how unimportant race is."

And how does that happen? Do you not "fucking" think that equality will come if society realise how important race is?


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Mon, Sep. 3rd, 2007 02:50 am (UTC)

"race quotas and the like are bullshit. They're assuming that people are making racist decisions without any substantial proof. They're unfair double standards that penalize and reward people based on race as opposed to merit."

So what is to be done? take no kind of affirmative action , just leave things as they are until 'society realises how unimportant race is?' (whatever that means). Seems rather naïve to me. I can only conclude that you are working from the assumption that racism isn't that big a problem, because you have 'no substantial proof' that people are making racist decisions.

Sorry, but how did you arrive at this? I'm sure many black people living in Europe and elsewhere where they are a minority group will be only too keen to correct this picture. There ARE widespread racist decisions made daily. Take Paris as a recent example. Not convinced? Would YOU cheerfully exchange places with a black man over here? perhaps then you would see that from a black perspective, race DOES matter and you'd see how those racist decisions mean many fewer opportunities come your way.... such as the case of some friends here in Madrid, just don't ask how it went when they were trying to rent a flat or get a loan. try telling them about merit not race being more important!

The sad thing is, the situation isn't going to change without action. Race quotas aren't ideal and I do partly sympathise with your argument but how else do we ensure blacks have equal opportunities when, despite whatever merit they have, more is always asked of them than of a white person - because of skin colour? until something better comes along it's the best we have.

I 'd like to respectfully amend your rather abstract conclusion to: 'Equality will come when black people have the same opportunities and access to what us whites have always had. Race quotas are an imperfect but useful step towards that '


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mandyrose
mandyrose
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 12:17 pm (UTC)

Ooops... so, yesterday I was looking at some Japanese comedy, and I thought, "Well, I bet Momus will put up a post about Japanese comedy soon." And you did!


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Sat, Sep. 1st, 2007 01:31 am (UTC)

I saw Eiji Okuda's NAGAI SAMPO last nite and I need a comedy Kudasai!


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Aug. 31st, 2007 01:57 pm (UTC)

I like these. I know a few other people I think will like them, too.


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