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June 16th, 2006
Fri, Jun. 16th, 2006 12:24 am

Well, I guess I should join Jean Snow and Marxy in lamenting the (allegedly imminent) closure of Relax magazine. Relax was a late arrival in the Japan of Shibuya-kei (rather as Escalator Records was), and the latest (last?) issue captures the magazine's characteristic psycho-geography: the theme is sea bathing, and reports have been filed from Hawaii, Venice Beach, Brazil and Biarritz. All that's lacking, really, is the semi-compulsory coverage of Alife in New York and a little feature on Margaret Kilgallen.

Relax has been struggling to regain its former composure ever since the departure, a couple of years ago, of founding editor Hitoshi Okamoto. Hitoshi now captains Magazine House's big sister publication, Brutus, which is a bit less LOHAS, a bit more commerce-friendly in its focus, revelling unapologetically (with sibling Brutus Casa) in the kind of design-oriented lifestyle consumption stuff we net nerds can get free, translated and digested into bite-sized chunks, on Jean Snow's site.

My fondest memories of Relax? Well, as a non-Japanese speaker I flipped though it chuckling at sections called things like "Best Must Hit Shit", "Column for Man in Cafe" and "Take A Girl Like You". My lack of reading skills, in this case, wasn't such a tragedy; much of Relax's strength lay in Okamoto's great taste in photographers. He and Takashi Homma must have run up thousands of free air miles ploughing back and forth between Tokyo and California; Santa Monica seemed to be the magazine's spiritual home. (And in this sense its demise is another marker of America's declining influence on Japan.)

I recall also the daringly arty one-shot of Homma's seascapes, page after page of blue-grey waves poured, rather surreally, into the format of a commercial magazine.



But my favourite Relax photographer, by far, was Masafumi Sanai. Sanai's use of a 6x7 format camera, contre jour natural light with delicate, sun-faded colorations, and hand-printing made his regular "Girl Like You" pages unmissable, as did the lovely models, captured as if crossed by chance in a vegetable market or some neglected, crumbly arcade full of plants, bicycles and tiny, cute old ladies. Sanai (you can see his non-girly images here) was in the original Superflat exhibition, and last year published a delightful book, a collection of his shots for Take A Girl Like You, which features a preface by Pizzicato 5's Konishi.

Other fond memories of Relax: getting paid $2000 when the magazine ran four pages of captioned photos of mine in July 2001, a time when I was living penniless in Tokyo. And staying on past my stop on the Yamanote Line, watching a callow youth reading through a copy of the published magazine, waiting to see exactly how long he spent on my feature. (It was long enough for me to ride two or three stops past Meguro.)

I also recall editor Okamoto explaining to me how he didn't like using stylists because they were against the spirit of Shinto (a stylist insults the kami living inside every model), or a visit to the Relax office in Ginza, next to the kabuki theatre, or the little book they published of my lyrics for Kahimi Karie, or the legendary "RELAX SUCKS!" graffiti which more or less came to define the golden triangle of Naka-Meguro where the Organic Cafe used to stand, its Groovisions doll welcoming all comers like a semi-human maneki nekko . The grafitti was, so the story goes, an affectionate in-joke daubed on the wall by the magazine's own art directors, who had their office in the area.

Now, I suppose we'll have to use the past tense. Relax sucked. In the best possible way, of course. Maybe now, at last, the twitching corpse of Shibuya-kei will be able to lie back, relax and enjoy the quality Slow Life death it so richly deserves.

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