June 8th, 2006


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.