February 20th, 2009


Japan x Italy, 1985

For a few years now I've known and loved Haruomi Hosono's soundtrack to the 1985 animation film Night on the Galactic Railroad (Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru / 銀河鉄道の夜), directed by Gisaburo Sugii and based on a story by Miyazawa Kenji. But it's only this week that I've managed to see the film, which is dark and atmospheric and really magical. Here's a trailer:

Watching the animation, and hearing Hosono's stately Fairlight music -- with its traces of Satie, Eno, Rota, Morricone -- in context, I was transported back to the fascinating cat's cradle of styles I first signalled in my 2002 essay Classicism and Atrocity. It's something to do with the way Italianness was projected in Japanese society back in 1985, and how postmodernism was channelling Italian Art Deco.

One reason this has such resonance for me, personally, is that the Tokyo I encountered in the early 90s was still essentially the Tokyo of 1985. The style of mid-80s Tokyo had a lot of Italian feel, but it was a "misunderstood" (ie filtered) Italy. I played my first shows in Japan at Club Quattro, atop the Parco department store. If that doesn't sound Italian enough, there were landmark buildings like the Watarium Museum, designed by Italian architect Mario Botta:

Just like Ettore Sottsass' work with Memphis Milano, Botta's postmodernism recycled interwar Italian Art Deco (covered well, from a graphic design perspective, in Steve Heller and Louise Fili's book Italian Art Deco: Graphic Design Between the Wars). Some of the astrological motifs you can see in the Galactic Railroad film look like Art Deco motifs, and in fact the whole film is set in a sort of fairytale Japanese Italy, a fantasy fusion nation you can still encounter in Tokyo today by visiting Venus Fort, the amazing trompe l'oeuil outside-in Italian shopping centre at Odaiba, or Shiodome Italia, a synthetic high-rise Italian plaza in Ginza.

The opening shots of the film show a school from the air, surrounded by poplar trees. It looks, in fact, very like Tadao Ando's design for Fabrica, the Benetton art school outside Treviso, which shows that the stylistic influence between Japan and Italy has run both ways. When I visited Fabrica -- to bring the connection to a personal level -- I ran into Pierre, ex-boyfriend of Kahimi Karie, for whom, of course, I'd written this song in Italian (on its way to becoming the alternative national anthem for Italy, cover versions and all):

It's interesting, too, that this video about the work of Swiss-Italian architect Mario Botta uses a very Shibuya-kei soundtrack (what is it, anyone know?):

It's almost as if Italian style came to its pinnacle in Tokyo in 1985, the year that Spiral opened. Designed by Fumihiko Maki, Spiral is the ideal model of a certain kind of PoMo Toyko architecture, and since Japan was very rich in the mid-80s, a lot of Tokyo still looks like that to this day. I suspect it'll always have something of this flavour, the way New York will always feel mid-20th century Modernist, whatever new gets built there.

Neo Geo (which was an art movement before it was a game console) plays a part in this "1985 Tokyo" style. It's also the name of a Ryuichi Sakamoto album from 1987. It was Sakamoto's 1986 album Futurista, though, that delved most into Italian influence. The spooky track Milan 1909 could be the ultimate musical fusion of Japan and Italy, mixing a vocodered narrative about the Futurist art movement with the yowls of kabuki actors, and raising the prickly question of the connection between Futurism and Fascism:

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Milan 1909 (mp3 file, 4MB)

Postscript: Speaking of that prickly connection, Marxy has a new piece up on Neojaponisme today that -- by interesting coincidence -- talks about that very thing. Unfortunately, for once, the Japanese angle is completely left out.

Since this seems to be in the air, under the cut I've put a conversation I had with Italian critic Carlo Antonelli. This was published in the catalogue for a show at GAMeC Bergamo called The Future of Futurism, in late 2007. (Warning: it's almost as long as the future itself. And it was transcribed by Italians.)

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