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Japan x Italy, 1985 - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 03:22 am
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.)

The Future of Futurism: From the "Italian revolution" to contemporary art, from Boccioni to Fontana to Damien Hirst
Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo, October 2007

Carlo Antonelli: The subject of the exihibition is the future of Futurism, the influence of Futuristic ideas all over the last century till now. Do you think it's a stupid subject?

Momus: Not at all. I think it's a very interesting subject, especially because Futurism is morally ambivalent, it's a very stimulating and exciting subject. It's also one with a lot of dark shadows. Of course because Marinetti was embracing Fascism in particular. And also because of the emphasis on destruction. Somebody called Picasso's works a "sum of destructions"; that's a good description for what the Futurists were doing: creative destruction. They prepared the way for new work which was going to be made in the 20th century. And now we have the retrospective vision of where all these things went, which of them were blind alleys, which of them led to something interesting. It's not finished yet, because a lot of these ideas are going to continue, developing into bioethics and genetic engineering. It took more than 70 years for some of those ideas to have an impact on the mainstream.

Carlo Antonelli: Can you give an overview of what are the most interesting ideas and the different lines inside Futurism's ideas?

Momus: In a way you can see it as coming out the 19th century and being a reaction to the 19th century, perhaps in the same way postmodernism came out of modernism as a reaction (it was both a development of modernism and the reaction against it). You can see very strongly the influence of Nietzsche. The very extreme over-the-top almost siphilitic tone of the Futurist manifesto very much echoes Nietzsche. But also of course there is a little bit of Freud in there: the idea of the unconscious and the destructive impulses of every human being that Freud had just published -- it's in a way the violent emergence of these same destructive urges. Of course they welcomed the First World War, the opportunity to remake the world with war. It's an extension of Romanticism. Instead of the Romantics' adoration of nature, the Futurists substituted mechanical human culture. They are kind of inspired by machines in the same way Wordsworth could have been inspired by a mountain or a lake.

Carlo Antonelli: Let's chant again together some lines, some words of the Manifesto and try to talk about it. We want to chant the bravery! Audacity! Rebellion! Love for the peril! Energy! Pensive immobility! Sleep!

Momus: It's very interesting to compare it with the Russian Constructivism which is going on in parallel but with a more internationalist approach. When they are talking about bravery they mean nationalistic bravery. It's a rejection of the foreigner as well as a rejection of women. There is a strong rejection of women. I can see Nietzsche: the love of danger, the rejection of the little man, of the bourgeois. This is one of the reasons Futurism failed in the 20th century: it inspired an elite of artists to embrace Nietzschean ways of thinking -- to lead the world, to be supermen. But in fact the 20th century is democratization and horizontality. People still built their little houses and still liked their decoration. The Futurists have a very angry rejection of these kinds of mediocre 19th century culture, but it's not so easily killed. This rejection inspired a lot of artists. For instance the architecture manifesto has some lines which say you should put elevators in the building on the outside in glass tubes which look like a serpent and that describes what Rogers and Piano did with the Pompidou Center 50 years later. The problem is that they haven't inspired the general population except for very selective areas like theme parks, or whatever. That's a bit of a detour. You can see that insistence on "making it new" as Pound put it, and Ezra came to Italy and he was also a fellow traveller with the fascist movement. And there is also this characterization of the past as somehow very silent as the Manifesto says (pensive immobility, ecstasy, sleep) and the same thing comes in Russolo's Art of Noise manifesto where he said that the ancient were silent. When in fact, if you read the literature of ancient Rome it was a very noisy city, it wasn't silent at all. There is this need to project this silence, deadness and immobility into the past and to see the past as a museum. Marinetti says "you should go to a museum once a year but not everyday" and I think that anybody who has ever been in Italy knows exactly where this impulse comes from, the impulse to reject the past, because it's so present in Italy. It's a Renaissance environment there. I can see the influence of that way of thinking in Superstudio, when they propose to fill the canals of Venice with concrete. Such a shocking gesture! But for a tourist. For one living in Venice, maybe not.

Carlo Antonelli: It's very boring to live in this kind of enviroment.

Momus: Of course you can see this adolescent anger and energy and you can see where it comes from.

Carlo Antonelli: Let's try to put all this stories inside the history of last century music in a way.

Momus: It's so tied with Cage, with 4' 33'', the whole idea. Russolo was a painter, he wasn't a musician. But he was disappointed by the orchestra, the fact that large group of people would make such a small pathetic sound, so limited. He wanted the sound of the city to become a new symphony. And there you can see a parallel with the Russians, Vertov and "The Man with the Movie Camera", or the Russian Constructivists.

Carlo Antonelli: And what was happening in parallel in the world of popular music? Taking away the avant-garde, what were the most interesting episodes of pop music that was talking about the urban experience?

Momus: If you take out the avant-garde, it takes longer for these experiments to reach the popular consciousness. I think you hear them in the 1986 album "Futurista" by Ryuichi Sakamoto. There's a track called "Milan 1909" which is in fact a description of the Futurist movement. Another example is ZTT, the record label that Paul Morley set up in the early 1980s, with Frankie Goes to Hollywood and other acts. He was very influenced by Russolo's Art of Noises and, unsurprisingly, he had a band on the label called the Art of Noise! And Propaganda as well. And then you have Kraftwerk, you can hear a huge amount of Futurist influence in the way they celebrate trains and cars, but at that point it's retro-futurism: to look back with nostalgia on a movement that looked forward with a kind of anger. There's also Varèse using the sound of sirens, Satie with his typewriters... Futurism is part of the industrial environment we inhabited in the 20th century.

Carlo Antonelli: Do you feel separated from the last century?

Momus: No, I am a product of the 20th century. I never felt that I lived in the present in Scotland, let alone the future. But when I went to Japan all the buildings were new, everybody was into technology in a way that I haven't seen elsewhere. There wasn't this fundamental conservatism that makes life so boring in the West. I can understand this desire to embrace totally the current moment or the current technology. But when you celebrate what is in a way inevitable, there is some danger in being politically disorientated or aesthetically disorientated. There is the concept of estrangement, the deliberate making strange of things which comes out of Russian formalism, a critic named Viktor Shklovsky. That's a very useful idea, the idea of alienation and estrangement. And also Brecht did it with Piscator, when they were doing slide projections of cities, there is also this element of deliberate alienation of the audience, making them sit back and engage in dialectical thinking. I think the Futurists don't have that, they are too close, they're too close to the war, although Marinetti didn't have a good war experience, he was terrified when he had to be on the battlefield. There is a danger of not having a sufficient critical distance from your era. You are on the timeline of the present rather than on the one of the future. They were in the future too. They anticipated the Independent Group exhibition in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London called "This is Tomorrow", which I think is the beginning of postmodernism, it's an embrace of American commercial culture, which was very liberating in a very provincial art scene at those times in Britain. But at the same time it didn't have a sufficient distance of what was going on in America. This is the same charge we have to put on Futurists: are they sufficiently detached and critical?

Carlo Antonelli: Do you think that it's interesting to still talk about the future?

Momus: Of course. Because if you don't talk about it somebody else is talking about it and he will design it for you. We all have to try to have our own vision of what is going to be.

Carlo Antonelli: That means having a notion of time that it's completely surpassed. I live neither in the present nor in the future or the past. I live in my own time and that's what the contemporary technology is very useful for.

Momus: If we take the metaphor of an operating system for instance, you can't live in system 6.7. If you're using Mac 0S 6.7 nobody will support you, you can't use any new software. We are forced to live roughly in the present and in our time. The best we can do to influence the future is to have a vision of where we want to go. Were the Futurists trying to change the future or were they simply celebrating the present? Marinetti in the Manifesto is celebrating things like a train coming into the station, or a steamer off the coast. There was very little of this technology in Italy. Perhaps you could see biplanes. Kafka came to Italy to see the biplanes in Brescia. It was a very impressive thing, to see your first car or plane. We now want to escape from cars, we desperately want to escape into some retro-Romanticism. It's very difficult to romanticize trains, cars or computers now. The 20th century was the time when for the first time more people were living in cities than the countryside, and that transition is still happening in Asia and in the Third World. This year more Chinese are living in cities that in the countryside. Sometime when I read this manifesto I think of China, I think of being the accomplice to a rapidly industrializing and materialist culture. And again I think about the lack of critical distance. Sometimes I can see Mohammed Atta in the Futurists. Slamming a plane into a building would be exciting for them,

Carlo Antonelli: That means that one of the futures of Futurism is simply global consumerism.

Momus: It's difficult to know what side would they be on. Would they be on the side of Al Qaeda, celebrating the chaos in Iraq, or would they be on the side of Next, McDonalds or Gap, the global consumer culture? I think they would hate global consumer culture. They were very much against the feminization of culture. They were very manly, in the most negative sense, they way they denigrate woman, gloryfing war as the only gesture of freedom. That's why I think of Atta.

Carlo Antonelli: You quoted Freud before. These statements about destroying everything and playing with toys.. it's very immature, it's a preadolescent feeling.

Momus: It's also necessary. I can see the necessity to make a clean break, to smash everything and start everything again. In the Hindu religion Shiva is the god of creation but also the god of destruction. You need to do both.

Carlo Antonelli: What about the use of advertising and propaganda, the use of mass comunication tools? The Manifesto was published in Le Figaro, the New York Times of those times. It's an antipation of The Society of Spectacle, somebody said.

Momus: There is a fantastic TV documentary series called "The Century of the Self", by filmmaker Adam Curtis. It looks at Freud's nephew, called Edward Bernays, who invented public relations, and inventened the idea of psychologically-themed advertising: he made feminists smoke cigarettes, for instance, and expanded the market for smoking by portraying it as an act of liberation. This stuff comes straight out of Freud, because the sigarette of course is a penis, etc...They anticated the whole Society of Spectacle. With 9/11 we reached perharps the ultimate spectacle. "The mother of all events," as Baudrillard called it.

Carlo Antonelli: A quick question: Debord?

Momus: One thing that I do find appealing in the Futurists is this kind of mixture between disgust and optimism. I don't see that optimism in Debord. He was a very sad man. You see that in his life, the way he died. And in his work I can only see "a boot stamping a human face forever".

Carlo Antonelli: Do you still believe in the idea that the avant-garde has to be necessarily shocking?

Momus: We still have adrenalin glands. And in the sense that the Futurists make me quite excited and the Manifesto makes me angry, they stimulate me. We do live in an age where every Hollywood trailer stimulates the adrenal glands as well. To be competitive on that level is not very useful. Did Cage take his ideas from Futurism or Buddism? I think more the second.

Carlo Antonelli: The American avant-garde of the mid-20th century was, as someone said, a reaction against the tragedy of Hiroshima. Was the idea of putting the dust under the carpet of Minimalism, including Cage, just a tender, fragile kiss in the ass of the entire American system?

Momus: Well, I can buy that one when we talk about the documented financial line between the CIA and Abstract Expressionism, but I don't think Cage was part of it. The vagueness, the blurriness, the lack of an explicit subject is part of the desire to escape from the political consequences of WW2 and Hiroshima. You have to go to Wahrol to get to this nihilism which takes us back to the Futurists. I can see them painting money in the same way Wahrol painted money or celebrities. They would love the celebrity culture or a certain kind of celebrity culture as long as it was violent enough. So you see their ideas in JG Ballard's "Crash", 60 years later. They don't go away.

Carlo Antonelli: The happening of Hiroshima cut in two the 20th century espressions in a Lacanian way. It's an unsaid subject that runs through the entire pop history, including music. The bizzarre faith in the future of the Sixities is in fact marked by the shadows of tragical images that in a way the Futurists cultivated.

Momus: There are lot of bands called Hanoi Rocks but not one single called Hiroshima Rocks!

Carlo Antonelli: For sure there was a taboo. The sixties are more dramatic than they're usually considered. The Tomorrow idea is marked by the Mushroom.

Momus: The sixties are strange because it seems a very forward-looking decade but in fact it's a return to romanticism, the hippie movement, the urban space turned into a nightmare, etc

Carlo Antonelli: Most of the Futuristics' dreams turned into a nightmare in fact. The rebellion was included in the new consumer society. The urban experience became impossible. The war let to the most violent event ever. The idea of the avant.garde, an elite movement that breaks the aesthetic codes, became the behaviour of the masses. Masstige is spread all over the world. Technological speed is now furious.

Momus: You can be ahead only by accident or by eccentricity. We live in a time when there are more human beings alive than ever and there are fewer ways of being human. There is a mass conformity. As long as there is conformity there can always be eccenticity and as long that there is eccentricity there can be an avant-garde. Technology magazines like Wired have to have the idea that some people are in advance of others, that some technologies are in advance of others.. It's not an idea of progress, it's an idea of brainstorming and of coming up with the new.

Carlo Antonelli: It's a banal speed.

Momus: Coming back to Kraftwerk, the succession of albums they made is amazing. They made a tribute to cars, then they made a tribute to trains, to the radio, to computers, and finally a tribute to bicycles. In fact it's true: If you go with a bicycle you feel the speed in a way you don't feel in a car. Everything is relative and subjective when it comes to speed. Now we live at the speed of the net, we are impatient when we walk out into the real world, it's slower then the net, it doesn't respond to our needs instantly. There's a slower pace of change in the aesthetic world, we see the same rock bands, the same people with the same ideas. In a way some lines are exausted and clearly technology is moving with a different speed than music, for instance.

Carlo Antonelli: All these things in the Manifesto sound silly. If you follow the game of the Manifesto, the prize is the disappearance of man.

Momus: I did a spoof of the Manifesto in 1994 which was exhibited in the Muséee D'Art Moderne in Paris. It took the over-the-top style of the Manifesto and then apologized for each point. Every proposition was marked or cancelled with correction statements. In a way you can see this naiveté in them. They are making such big statements but you can see also small glimpes of their membership of the bourgeoise. They want to go to the museum, at least once a year! They like Beethoven, as Russolo said. It'a like a Melanisian Cargo Cult. It's very naive and innocent in a way.

Carlo Antonelli: Are the Futurists a prototype of a rock band?

Momus: No, I think of them more as art students. They wanted to make a a splash, they wanted to have a reason to get together and have a bit of a boys' club. I think they're a boys' club,

Carlo Antonelli: Most of the bands are literally boys' clubs, though,

Momus: Yes, that's true. They'd probably be some really terrible death metal band, then.


alin huma
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 04:35 am (UTC)

it needs to be said that in tokyo they did actually stuff their wonderful 'venetian' canals with concrete; damnm you , errhm,, futurists

Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC)
concrete; damnm

Doesn't that have something to do with seasonal flooding and erosion issues?

ReplyThread Parent
alin huma
Sat, Feb. 21st, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)
Re: concrete; damnm

not really, more to do with a weak concept of public space - (or maybe, to go with t. murakami's famous thesis, 3 dimensional space)


ReplyThread Parent
Stanley Lieber
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 05:01 am (UTC)

that is a great building.

Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 08:31 am (UTC)

"nothing ever disappears that lives for times to come"


Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 08:38 am (UTC)

Unfortunately, for once, the Japanese angle is completely left out.

You filled it in for me, so no problem.


Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 11:48 am (UTC)

Botta is Swiss, though Swiss Italian would be fine in the context of your article.

For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 11:56 am (UTC)

I love that song, actually.

I'm trying to find that Renato thing where he dresses up as a Geisha but I can't find it now. Probably a good thing, though tranny stereotypes of women combined with racism is right up your alley.


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)

Ah, I haven't seen Porco Rosso. Must track it down.

Miyazaki apparently loves Night on the Galactic Railroad.

ReplyThread Parent

(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)

Thanks for that post. It's amazing how much similarity has developed between the Euro and Sino sensibilities.

ReplyThread Parent

Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)

Joe Hisaishi (Miyazaki's long time composer) set the story Night on the Galactic Railroad to music himself in 1996. I've not heard his version.

The Hosono-Miyazaki connection is of course the tie-in single by Narumi Yasuda
(years later covered by Takako Minekawa but that seems to have been taken down by youtube)
The song wasn't actually in the film, only Hisaishi's score.

For synthspotters out there, Hosono didn't own a Fairlight. (though Sakamoto did.) Hosono was using a K250 at the time of Night on the Galactic Railway.


ReplyThread Parent
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)

I think I prefer this version of the Yasuda song, but it's a bit plodding and dull, overall. I haven't heard Takako's cover.

Good to know about the synth.

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)

I was thinking about ZTT and their version of Italy. Then I thought of Scritti Politti, who took their name from Gramsci. Italy was not just the birthplace of Fascism but also the western country with the most popular communist party.

Great post.


Fri, Feb. 20th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)

hi momus. I encountered this today and thought of you:



Wed, Feb. 25th, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)
Botta's Birthplace

In case you missed my previous comment and have not had time to research Botta's origins:


It would be good to rectify this misinformation.