imomus (imomus) wrote,

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.

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