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Tue, May. 26th, 2009 10:57 am
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.

35CommentReply


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)

I think of dandyism as a defiant frontal flamboyance, a rebellion against discretion which declares itself like a righteous challenge. As such, it couldn't be iki, though I suppose there must be a sub-category of "oblique dandyism" which might come closer.


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lana_sv
lana_sv
lana_sv
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)

sublime


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milobusbecq
milobusbecq
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
Sprezzatura

I think the closest Western concept is sprezzatura (for a more or less correct if slightly too schematic, masculine and binary summary, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprezzatura ).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Sprezzatura

That does catch one part of iki rather well, but iki is so multi-faceted; specific yet sprawling and vague.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
Hi Momus

Thanks for the picture and the chat at the Northampton show - and signing our banana! Really enjoyed your performance and Aki's and I hope you have a safe trip back to Berlin. -Robyn


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(Anonymous)
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)
Twit_opera

Brilliant - now Twit_opera warns me when there is a new post...

I did enjoy the tweet - "iki with aki"


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)

kinda like mod?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
funazushi
funazushi
funazushi
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 10:40 pm (UTC)

I was just talking to my wife about this and I think she defines it close to your example. She said an Iki na hito is someone who is thoughtful towards others without show. Whereas yabo person is someone who is very nosey and would want to know all about your personal business.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
more on wabi sabi

momus, can you summarize your understanding of wabi sabi? or maybe you have in an older post. from my jpals, i get a varied response too. i've never felt like i know 100% what it is.

i kinda take it a an aesthetic beauty in what can be first seen as sad? but then i think that's not wabi sabi, that's like sakura; beauty in somethings that are temporary.

another rough description, i've taken it just to mean 'an unspoken understanding.' like in a intimate relationship i can tell if she's happy or sad by other things then words... maybe how she closes the door, or if she got something for me she knows i like, but didn't ask for.


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tropigalia
tropigalia
Dewy-Eyed Disney Bride
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 11:42 pm (UTC)

http://lovelyburger.com/pics/momus/momulj.jpg

it was awesome seeing you live and i have to thank you for being so kind and accommodating!

i have about a billion pictures to upload (none of which are very good since i didn't use the flash) but here are some videos:
http://www.youtube.com/user/tropigalia


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margokennedy
margokennedy
emotional communist
Wed, May. 27th, 2009 03:37 am (UTC)

Momus I am Lindsay from Portland, Oregon!! Thanks for the shoutout. Please come here asap~


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(Anonymous)
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 11:42 pm (UTC)
Event calendar

Where can I found out about future appearances? I found out about today's about 20 minutes too late. A little advance warning, please!


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jdcasten
J.D. Casten
Tue, May. 26th, 2009 11:50 pm (UTC)
Yabo Dabble Do

"Yabo" seems to get quite the thrashing here, but maybe "rudeness" is rarely a positive trait. "Iki" sounds "understated" and "elegant"… maybe "stoic?," but seems to me to overlap a little with "wabi sabi’s" humble imperfections.

I think that not having a full Japanese context for understanding leads to an air of mystery for these concepts… but maybe they were meant to be somewhat mysterious in their native language as well?


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Wed, May. 27th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
iki or not

Sounds like another class bias-ism creating reality. There has been a quiet revolution or is it another form of smothering suburbia!


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milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Wed, May. 27th, 2009 04:43 am (UTC)
you should all be ashamed...

trying to pin iki down in a western context, is like trying to find the smell of an ex-love in your current lover...

Its fun to explore, but please. To pull ikis clothes apart and spread its legs, takes its life away, and ruins the show.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 27th, 2009 05:57 am (UTC)
Re: you should all be ashamed...

Now I'm even more interested in iki.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
pay_option07
pay_option07
Wed, May. 27th, 2009 05:31 am (UTC)
(of class, linguistic variation, etc.)

Variation suggests geography with a sort of linguistic ambivalence running it that avoids focus and despises intellectual analysis.
How would it compare to the New York State of mind?


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Wed, May. 27th, 2009 05:56 am (UTC)

it's rude to speculate!


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