May 26th, 2009


The enigma of iki

During one of my long train journeys with Aki Sasamoto recently she mentioned Shuzo Kuki's book Anatomy of Iki, a long essay published in 1930, and asked me if I was familiar with the aesthetic of iki. I said "I don't know much about iki, but I think of it as something to do with the way a geisha turns away slightly or pretends not to be projecting her sexuality, while actually doing so."

In contrast to Japanese aesthetics like wabi sabi, Iki is something I find it very hard to grasp. It seems nebulous and contradictory to me. I wanted to make some notes -- somewhat in the technique we were talking about yesterday, the "pick five adjectives" technique -- today about the ways people have defined iki.

Wikipedia calls iki "a variety of chic culture current among the fashionable set in Edo in the Tokugawa period". Here's the adjective cluster for iki they provide:

simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous, etc. An iki person/deed would be audacious, chic, pert, tacit, sassy, unselfconscious, calm, indifferent, unintentionally coquettish, open-minded, restrained

Things that are not iki: perfect, artistic, arty, complicated, gorgeous, curved, wordy, intentionally coquettish, cute

A couple of years back, Click Opera's own expert in such things, Kumakouji, provided a list of iki things and contrasted them with iki's antonymn, yabo:

Yabo is loud, Iki is sassy.
Yabo is showy, iki is chic.
Yabo is colourful, iki is muted.
Yabo is childish and cute, iki is sombre and restrained.
Yabo is being intentionally sexy, iki is being unintentionally sexy.
Yabo is a samurai, Iki is a buddhist monk.
Yabo is arty, complicated and wordy, Iki is improvisational straight-forward, and to the point.
Yabo is self-concious and closed-minded. Iki is unselfconcious and open-minded.

Hisae gave her definition: "Yabo is more like countryside, whereas Iki is more like a city-type thing. I think of Yabo as something unsophisticated or unrefined or inelegant -- akanokenai, gauche. To me Iki is more like courageous, or with good grace and more straightforward, like edoko or saba saba. Of course Iki is more like you have something natural, they just act from what they have, whereas Yabo is more like you're trying to disguise or to pretend something. Yabo is quite dasai."

The best definitions (though still, for me, confusingly scattershot) come in An aesthetic of everyday life, a paper by Yamamoto Yuji. Yamamoto, following Kuki, associates iki with the sexual attitude of the geisha:

erotic allure, pride, resignation ("dynamically sustaining physical and emotional distance between the opposite sex, but not completely losing it").

Yamamoto quotes an 1853 encyclopedia entry on iki which says it means: pumped up, chivalrous, valiant, courageous, energetic, gallant, dashing, dapper, smart, rakish, stylish (the meaning seems to have changed quite a bit since this definition).

More tips from Yamamoto: iki is casual and impromptu, and can be superficial and vulgar. An iki attitude would represent "disinterestedness, purposiveness without purpose, and the free play and autonomy of the aesthetic function", though art that proclaims itself as such can't be iki.

Kuki recognized iki in stripes, especially vertical rather than horizontal ones, because "parallel lines express the dichotomy of the self and the opposite sex.” Kuki thought that only grey, brown, and blue were truly iki colours. The only paintings which could be iki were simple ones.

Iki has to be implicit, not explicit. You can't be iki if you say you are, or seem to know you are. Your beauty must be something for someone else to discover, to prise out of you or read into you. Iki is an aesthetics of the back, of the nape of the neck. It can't be face-to-face. It's an aesthetic of obliqueness and peripheries -- it "avoids focus and despises intellectual analysis".

If I'm still not sure I understand what iki means, that may be because, as Kuki believed, iki doesn't exist in the West and can't really be grasped by non-Japanese.

Momus plays New York's Highline Ballroom tonight, starting at 7pm sharp.