Flying in a blue dream …

Last week in Tokyo was Golden Week, the long week of public holidays that people traditionally use to travel. I stayed in Tokyo and chose to use one of the days to visit what I thought of as “the Mucha exhibition” at the National Art Center, Tokyo. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum, the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, and the Year of Czech Culture, 2017, so I guess it was intended to be something special. I had previously seen a Mucha exhibition at the Kitakyushu Art Museum in Fukuoka, where I saw primarily a collection of his illustrations and advertising work, and I was expecting the same in Tokyo but perhaps expanded, so I was completely stunned when I walked into the first room and found myself facing an 8m x 6m canvas of luminous beauty, The Slavs in their original homeland, pictured above. In fact this exhibition was displaying almost all of Mucha’s Slav Epic, a collection of huge oil paintings describing key events in the history of the Slavic peoples, which he painted over an 18 year period (1910 – 1928). These pictures showcase incredible art nouveau technique, while displaying striking mythical figures and key historical events in splendid beauty, and their impact cannot be appreciated by viewing them on any screen. Take the picture above, for example: The god on the right of the picture must be 4 or 5 metres high, and the two human figures at the bottom centre are almost human sized. The god doesn’t just loom over the viewer, but seems to actually float out of the picture, and really dominates the space around the picture in a way that even the best onscreen rendering cannot picture. The glowing fires at the centre left also spring to life with an almost feral radiance when you view the picture in person, the stars actually seem to sparkle, and those semi-corporeal distant figures on horseback are vague and indistinct in just the way you would expect if you were standing before that god, looking into the real distance to see oncoming soldiers.

The other pictures in the series are similarly dramatic, and to stand near them is to feel as if you are part of the unfolding drama rather than a witness in an art gallery – and this despite the fact that, because it was golden week in Tokyo, this gallery was packed. The photo below, which I took in the area where photos are allowed, gives a sense of the scale of the pictures and the crowd at the gallery, and the way the pictures stand imposingly above even this many people. In some ways the crowd was a boon, since it forced one to move back from the pictures and view them from their proper distance, as well as helping to keep the scale of the images in perspective.

Let’s enjoy Red Square together!

I’m quite a fan of art nouveau – I visited the Tiffany Museum in Matsue when I lived there, and I’ve visited Mucha and other similar exhibitions before where I can. I know a lot of people probably view it as not real art – kind of effete and shallow, the way perhaps some people view the romantic poets or perhaps like the pop music of art, but I think it has an evocative beauty that also speaks of a rare period of time in history when our developed nations were not yet modern but were full of hope and idealism and looking forward and upward. I also think it reflects non-European influences and I appreciate its intricate connections with advertising and popular theatre, which gives it a kind of populism that I appreciate in art. It’s not as “experimental” as some of the other movements that came at the same time, and for that I think it gets frowned on, and I think some modern art critics probably don’t respect its simple enjoyment of classical or saccharine beauty (especially feminine beauty). But I think at its best it is able to capture something of the human soul or the desire humans have always had to find transcendent beauty in their surroundings, and I think it must have been really stretching the available techniques of the time to achieve that sense of liminal and supernatural beauty that it aspires to. If I ever had any doubt about just how well art nouveau was able to achieve these goals, Mucha’s Slav epic dispelled them. This series of works is a masterpiece, and a perfect showcase of all the best aspects of this style. Walking through the halls of the epic is like drifting through an art nouveau dream, full of diffuse lights and ghostly figures, radiant spaces, beautiful ethereal women and striking, tragic moments. After viewing these massive pieces there was a large collection of his other work but some of his famous pieces – like the four flowers – which would have been masterpieces if they had been shown on their own were anti-climactic after the gigantic dreamscapes of the main display.

This is probably the third really great exhibition I have visited in Tokyo. In 2007 I saw Ashes and Snow at a temporary space in Tokyo Bay, having no idea really of the scale of its content; then quite recently I saw The Universe and Art at the Mori art museum,  and now within a year I get to see this unique apotheosis of art nouveau. This is one of the really good things about living in Tokyo – it may happen only once a year and they may be very crowded, but the quality and global nature of the content is really high. This exhibition lasts until the 5th June, so if you are in Tokyo I strongly recommend getting along to see it. Even if you aren’t especially into this particular artistic form, I think it will capture you with its scale and ambition, and if you do appreciate art nouveau I doubt you’ll ever get the chance to see as good an exposition of its best qualities as you will when you visit this exhibition. So, go, and get lost in dreams of Slavic history.

jerome

On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.

And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.

In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.

As you would be.

But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.

Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.

Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:

  • I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
  • The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??

This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.

Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.

 

Only what you see man, only what you see

Only what you see man, only what you see

Today a friend took me, without explanation, to see Sophie Calle’s The Unsold (売り残し) at Koyanagi Gallery in Ginza. I don’t often attend art shows – let alone modern art installations – and I almost never visit Ginza, so this was a real novelty for me, but despite my initial misgivings it was definitely worth it. Here is my review.

When I entered the gallery my first glance revealed an installation of everyday objects, including two dresses, that to my jaundiced and cynical eye immediately resembled Tracey Emin’s execrable bed-type stuff, and I was immediately disappointed. However, right at the door there is an introductory explanation (in Japanese and English) of the premise of the work, which changed my mind. Basically, three artists set up a flea market in the grounds of Yasukuni Jinja. They laid out their wares on three squares of cloth, as shown in the picture. One (I don’t recall which) sold worthless every day items, to each of which was attached a story that actually happened (i.e. a real story) with some relationship to the item but in which the item itself was not directly involved (so e.g. the typewriter on sale is not necessarily the typewriter from the story). Another sold a mixture of semi-antiques (cutely mis-spelled as “semi-antics” in this exhibition) and ordinary items, to which were attached completely fake stories with apparent emotional content[1]. The third sold actual antiques, and one of his original photos. For example one person was selling a completely normal bra for about 25,000 yen, and another person was selling a picture of a psycho-analyst (freud?) for 38,000 yen. One of the antiques was an ancient ceramic hot water bottle, and the picture was a pretty cool sea/sky thing. Each artist catalogued what they sold and the amount of money they sold it for – which was surprisingly large. Apparently an American tour guide passed by as this sale was going on and told his charges “there is nothing here, ignore it.” (Cute). The explanation finishes with the simple, curt phrase “These are the unsold.” So the exhibition consists of the material that was not sold.

This exhibition consists of three pieces of cloth on which the remaining items are laid out, attached to each of which is a tag with the price and the story. Behind each installation, on the wall, is a photo of the original setup, so you can see what was sold. On the opposite wall are the tags for the sold items, with their corresponding story. These tags have no information about the item to which they correspond, so you have to wander across to the original picture and guess. The stories are really interesting and believable, though whether they are actually true or not I have no clue. Investigating on wikipedia I discovered that the Eiffel tower story is true, and just as unbelievable as it sounds – Sophie Calle certainly knows how to do crazy things (I can’t remember if the item attached to this story was sold or not).

I’m an uncultured barbarian, so I have no idea what this installation was trying to tell me about whatever, but I thought it was really cool. Trying to understand why people bought these ludicrously overpriced objects because of their vague stories, or didn’t buy some object even though its story was cool, was an exercise in intruding into someone else’s private life. The stories themselves were fascinating, disconnected monologues, none of which I believed (but some of which I have subsequently learnt are real!) I can’t speak for the Japanese but the English used in the broader narrative descriptions – what the exhibition is about, how the artists met – is clear, sparse and strong. The structure of the main introductory sign and its finishing statement, “These are the Unsold” is particularly powerful, and suits the style of the exhibition. It’s a simple idea done well, and it holds your attention. Why did the passersby leave the charred bedspring and buy the useless typewriter? This, I cannot fathom. I wouldn’t buy the red bucket some guy pissed in, but why would someone else buy the bottle. Also the story of the horn is acutely sad and the horn is quite cheap, but apparently un-sellable. What does that mean?

I didn’t know anything about Sophie Calle before this exhibition, but reading her Wikipedia page I get the impression that she is a powerful, prodigious and generally unethical talent. My friend has also seen the exhibit Take Care of Yourself, which as the quoted reviewer says seems to be both shallow and deeply engaging. Her attempt to get blind people to define beauty sounds like it has the potential to be very powerful (I don’t draw any conclusions!) and the work where she gets a guy to shadow her and then presents pictures of herself sounds really interesting. Invading others’ privacy, not so much. How come medical researchers have to get ethics approval, but French artistes can pursue some guy across the world, or hijack a stolen diary for money?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, I’d never heard of Sophie Calle before today and I think her work is a genuinely interesting and challenging example of modern art at its finest. I don’t know what she’s trying to say with this exhibition and I can’t really say what I think of it, but it’s really cool. It would be better if she followed it up with some kind of article in a peer-reviewed journal giving her conclusion about what the purchases and non-purchases mean, instead of leaving it to an ignorant rube like me to try and understand, and if she had found a way to summarize what was bought and wasn’t (e.g. rankings with stories, or a website where you can see all the objects with what was bought and what wasn’t, and its story) then the exhibition would have been even cooler. But despite these missed opportunities this exhibition is very cool, and in general I have to say Sophie Calle’s work seems pretty interesting. I hope more of her stuff comes to Japan, and I recommend visiting it if you are in Japan, or keeping an eye out for her work if you are not.

 

 

 

fn1: I may be mis-remembering the exact nature of what these items were, but I hope you get the general gist.

Magnetism, by Ahmed Mater

The campaign setting I am currently playing in, Punjar, has a vaguely middle Eastern subtext, with the city of our adventures presented as a chaotic, slightly exotic free state of souks and temples, such as western readers might associate with somewhere in pre-modern Oman or Turkey. While gaming there I try to hold in my head images such as the opening scenes of The Exorcist, though obviously (unlike the priest of that ill-omened scene) my character is a local who understands what is happening around him (and might even understand the meaning of the statue he dug up, if he could make the Arcana check!)

Simultaneously with my entry into this world of bazaars, brothels and giant barking toads, the British Museum has opened what looks like a fascinating exhibition on the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that constitutes one of the five pillars of the faith. The Guardian has an interesting review, with links to some of the artists involved (one of the artists’ pictures is on the top of this post). The review certainly makes this exhibition sound like a masterpiece of the curator’s craft: it combines historical documents, objects and art with modern art, video of some of the scenes of the Hajj, old news footage, and modern diaries and spoken accounts of people’s pilgrimages. The review makes reference equally to high art and the diary of a North London schoolgirl. It also appears to show something of the complex relationship between Britain and its ex-colonies in South Asia.

I’m not in London now so I can’t visit things like this anymore (though sometimes the British Museum’s exhibitions end up in Japan), but it looks like something that would be well worth visiting for those living in London. This exhibition also hints at the complex and fascinating campaign setting that the Islamic world offers to enterprising GMs. Obviously most of us, as outsiders to that world, can only really hope to present a cheap simulacrum of that world (like, say, Punjar) but even a very shallow investigation of the world of Islamic art, history and culture would no doubt throw up a wide range of interesting and exciting adventure settings. I’ve no doubt, too, that the political context of almost any period in Islamic history – from the time of the prophet onward – would be easily as challenging as those of the Victorian era. Also playing on the opposite side of the nations of the Great Game – e.g. as Afghan adventurers during the Russian and British interventions there in the 19th century, or as adventurers in any city of the Middle East during the Crusades – could be a lot of fun.  The breadth of the Islamic world, which ranges from modern-day England to 12th century Indonesia, and the diversity of its cultures, offers a plethora of settings, and the Hajj is the classic opening scene (“the adventure starts with the PCs on a routine mission, guarding a rich merchant on his pilgrimage to Mecca”). In fact, it could be like Monkey, with the entire campaign occurring on the journey to the Hajj. You set off from somewhere in India at level 1, and 8 months and 20 levels later you arrive in Mecca. Your ultimate mission, of course, is the pilgrimage itself. But in the face of a hazardous journey over a whole continent, can you even keep the faith that you set off in service of? Or, in the words from one piece in the exhibition: “Are you leaving as you had come?”

Steampunk Scorpion Girls are GO

On Sunday I went to a Gothic Lolita live rock event, run by a la mode Tokyo, a gothic lolita night club organizer (they don’t seem to have any kind of web presence that I can find, though they seem to be connected to this group and can be found on Artism). This seems to be the central group offering live and club events connected to the Gothic Lolita scene, so obviously it’s going to be an interesting excursion, as well as potentially a very pretty one.

The event was held at the Live Inn Rosa in Ikebukuro, from 4pm to 10pm on Sunday the 8th January. There were a total of about 8 bands playing, with an MC who also sings and a couple of “mini-live” performances of 10 to 20 minutes each. There was also a collection of stalls selling goth-lolita goods but they were small and inobtrusive. Some of the bands had a table selling (or giving away) products. Admission was ¥3500 with a drink (about $40 including 1 drink). This may seem like a lot but it’s worth remembering a couple of things about Japanese live performances: you usually get to see a lot of bands, and the bands are usually extremely high quality. Japanese live performers are universally very very good, and so even if you don’t like the genre you’re not going to be subjected to that classic of the Aussie pub rock genre, a band whose music you just can’t understand because they’re sloppy and out of time and drunk. I didn’t stay for the last two bands, but what follows is a brief review of those I did see. Pictures were taken on candelight setting on my crappy cheapest-in-the-shop Olympus camera, but I hope they give a sense of the scene.

Strange Artifact

Gasmasks and Lace: Indeed, a Strange Artifact

Billing themselves as a steampunk band (whatever that is), Strange Artifact were basically a bass-guitar / vocalist pair, with drums and guitar on backing tapes. Their music is close to Visual Kei in style, with a female singer and perhaps a little more electronic influence than the average Visual Kei performance. You can see a video of one of their songs from the weekend here or hear a studio song on track 9 of this compilation. The singer isn’t operatic (as you will see, this is relevant) and this performance was probably the closest to a rock/visual kei genre. It was fun and energetic and well presented, and I really enjoyed it.

Essential Steampunk Goods

I’m not sure how this band is steampunk and I should say right away that I don’t understand the lyrics of songs in Japanese, so I don’t know what they sing about. This Steampunk genre is a complete mystery to me!

Miyahi Aya

And down the rabbit hole we go ...

Miyahi Aya was a sudden change in pace. A solo singer with all her backing music on tape[1], singing a strange blend of synthpop, J-pop and cabaret-style music. You can sample some of her songs at her Myspace page, where you can also find a slightly less blurry picture of her. In between her songs she maintained a fairly entertaining patter of banter with herself and the audience, most of it quite shy and self-deprecating and a bit silly. Again, I’m not sure about the content of her songs but the atmosphere for this 30 minutes was one of light-hearted silliness in between songs presented in a demure and slightly wistful physical performance. Good if you want your J-pop blended with gothic industrial themes and a dash of synthpop, in a lacy dress.

Tamamushi Naoki

Old-fashioned elegance returns

This was possibly my favorite performance of the night simply for the way it encapsulated a spirit of gothic elegance that I think has long since drained from the scene in other parts of the world. Tamamushi Naoki is one half of the duo “Pudding a la mode,” and you can hear one of their songs on their last.fm page. I don’t remember Tamamushi sounding anything like that, though: her songs were more powerful single vocal pieces, with a more gothic-rock backing style and a more sedate and solemn pace. For the duration of her performance she also had incense and that little lantern burning, and she performed in front of the visual screen rather than on the stage, giving it a more intimate feeling. Her make up and outfit were superbly gothic in the old style, and that dress was very splendid. She danced in the classic gothic mode (waving her arms and stepping backwards and forwards – it’s about all you can do in clothes like that) and gave a very self-conscious and simple performance without any of the artifice or posing that often accompanies modern live acts. She was, however, only on for 10 minutes, and her performance was slightly distracted from by the projection screen behind her, which was playing the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland over her face.

Kokushicho (黒死蝶)

Lesbian Metal Lolita Explosion!

Perhaps the most outright entertaining of the acts, Kokushicho (Black Death Butterflies, in English) describe themselves as a “Symphonic Gothic Unit” and, true to their name, give a fairly robust metal/goth crossover performance involving a good amount of power chords, some (dainty) headbanging, and robust vocals of the girl-metal variety. They came on stage in pirate outfits, belted out an excellent symphonic metal job, then disappeared and returned to the stage in the more classic costumes you see above. I can’t see any of their music online but their site is here. This “Unit” told us after their first song that they are lovers, and they seemed to be riffing off of this a bit in their banter with each other in between songs – presenting a kind of light comedy teasing like a couple. Like most of the other bands playing today, all of their music was on backup tape like a J-pop band, and we only saw the vocal performance, but it was an energetic and exciting performance with an entertaining metal theme.

ElupiA

Operatic Elupements

Elupia was perhaps the first of the “main” acts of the night, and also happen to be a band we have a connection to: The Delightful Miss E is friends with the keyboardist (not the one to the foreground in this picture, but the one tucked away in the furthest, darkest corner of the room). Elupia are operatic goth rock, like a Japanese Nightwish, with a little more Visual Kei influence. Apparently the singer actually has operatic training, and it certainly seemed that way during her performance. Their Myspace page includes a couple of samples and a promotional video, and I think it’s safe to say they’re a pretty impressive act. They’re all well-polished performers, and seemed very skilled and popular with the crowd. I’m not a huge fan of operatic metal (I’ve tried getting into bands like Nightwish and consistently fail) but as a live act these guys were awesome. Sadly, though, they were only on for half an hour.

Gurimo Rizumo

The Goth-loli Circus Comes to Town

Gurimo Rizumo regaled us initially with an introductory speech, very much in the manner of a woman telling a children’s story or narrating a wildlife documentary. Each of their songs is a story and comes with an initial narrative, presented in this faux-serious way. The music could probably best be described as burlesque/cabaret goth, which is also not a genre I’m particularly fascinated by (largely because of the enooooormous load of pretentious wank that associates with burlesque), but this band presented as a genuine performance, wank-free and very confidently theatrical. It’s a very interesting style, and you can see an example of it in this youtube video. The second video (about 6:23) is the song they presented first, about the murderous circus. I really like these kinds of performances, where the performers are putting in a real effort not just to sing a song but to build a whole image and performance style, even if (as in this case) the crowd is quite small and the venue very normal. Thirty or forty years ago bands like The Cure and Marillion were doing this sort of thing, with varying degrees of success, and if they hadn’t taken themselves seriously we would be a sadder world now.  And one thing I certainly like about the Japanese music scene is its seriousness. As you can see from the shot below, the setting isn’t special, but this band were really giving it their all to take us to the circus …

Goth-loli geeklove...

Overall Impressions

Corsets, feathers, lesbian pirates ...

The bands in this live event had quite a few things in common, which I guess are a property of the music attached to the gothic-lolita scene. All the singers – and in many cases, all the members – were women, and although the music ranged across a couple of genres, it had a general operatic/cabaret theme, with a strong goth/metal base. Of course, like most Japanese gothic rock it was heavily influenced by Visual Kei, but had a nice variety of the carnivalesque that suits the image this scene presents to the outside world. There was a heavy focus on performance and presentation, which is nice, and although much of the imagery in the costumes is very western the style of the performances was very Japanese. As always at a Japanese live event the performers were stylish, skilled and dedicated. They were also friendly and engaging both on and off stage.

This music scene also harks back to an era that I think has been lost in British and Australian goth: an era when the scene was focused around women and women’s voices, and privileged elegance over raunch, and creativity over aggro. Now in the goth scene we see a lot of emo and tattooed blokes thumping out whiny songs about their ex’s, and women’s clothing and presentation has been pornified in a way that I find disappointing. Sure, it’s nice that young women can come to goth clubs in essentially their underwear, but I liked all the corsetry and elaborate make-up, and the focus on beauty and elegance over tits ‘n arse. So it’s nice to see this scene in Japan preserving that old-fashioned gothic shyness and elegance, while simultaneously exploring new avenues of musical expression. It’s also nice to see cabaret/burlesque worked into a music scene without the inevitable explosion of poseurs and wankers that accompany it in the west. It’s a typical unassuming, humble approach to a music scene that really has gotten a little ahead of itself elsewhere.

In summary, even if you aren’t that into cabaret-style metal, this music scene is definitely worth exploring if you’re into goth music and in Tokyo.

fn1: Incidentally, I don’t know how to say this. It was recorded and played but do we still say “backup tape”? Is it “backup iPad” now?

fn2: Actually, to their credit, so were a couple of men

Where is the floating girl when you need her?

Yesterday I visited the Studio Ghibli Museum for the first time. It’s in Mitaka, Tokyo, close to my home, and is a museum about the development of animation in Japan, through the eyes of Miyazaki Hayao and the Studio Ghibli team. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ghibli, they are the creators of Japan’s most-loved Anime movies, including Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki Hayao has had huge artistic and cultural influence in Japan and was also a big influence on industry practice, and is genuinely a household name in a way that I think even Disney would admire. His movies (at least, the earlier ones) are amazing and well worth the respect the Japanese public offer them.

The Ghibli museum is set in a smallish building on the edge of Inokashira Park in Mitaka, about a 10 minute taxi ride from Kichijoji Station. The building itself is designed to resemble the classic style of the houses in many of Miyazaki’s movies, but is set slightly back from the road in amongst trees, to resemble a house in a forest. Inside it is built on three levels, with the Laputa robot on the roof, exhibition spaces on the bottom two levels and a shop and children’s play area on the third floor. The children’s play area is, of course, a Cat Bus. The building itself is small, and admission has to be booked up to a month in advance because of the limited number of people who can enter, but is itself cheap (¥1000). For the price of admission you get access to the museum and one-time admission to the movie theatre, which plays a different short film every month. Sadly only elementary school children can play in the Cat Bus (hrmph!)

The bottom level of the museum has the main exhibits, including a room containing a very brief history of animation, all expressed through Ghibli characters – this has an excellent example of strobe-lit animation using extremely cute Totoro characters, showing the basic process by which animation works. The next level contains an example of an animator’s studio, perhaps modeled on Miyazaki’s studio back in the day, which is very interesting. You walk through a room furnished as if it were a studio, with storyboards and sketches on the walls, books that Miyazaki used as sources, and examples of an animator’s workbench or the types of texts and background material he or she might draw upon – whole scrapbooks of pictures of plants, crystals, planes or animals cut from magazines and books, for example, or textbooks full of scenery from around the world. It gives an insight into how the animator develops their work from idea to final production.

The museum also contains a library of children’s books from around the world, all translated into Japanese (some of which can be purchased), and is constructed with bridges, nooks, crannies and mysteriously-placed windows designed to make it explorable for children – and certainly children were going crazy exploring the building while we were there. It also has a cafe, which I’m sure is very cute, but it was so busy we didn’t dare go near it. Finally, it has a cinema. The ticket to the cinema is a framed clipping of a couple of cells from a film reel, and can be kept as a souvenir. Our film was Chu Zumo, “Mouse Sumo,” which was a cute adaptation of an old folk tale, the story of which (in Japanese) is here.

Mouse Sumo

The basic story of this 13 minute film concerns an old couple who live on a steep mountainside. They are poor and have to work hard, and every day is spent farming on the mountainside with no break. Nothing interesting happens. One night, however, the old man goes outside to take a leak, and sees a bunch of mice sneaking off through the grass into the forest. One is carrying a firefly light, one is carrying a leaf as a penant, and the rest are wearing little sumo thongs. He follows and finds all the mice of the surrounding area gathered around a sumo ring to watch a bout between the mice of his house and the mice of a neighbouring area. These mice are bigger and white, and they wipe the floor with the mice from his house.

Horrified, he returns home and the next day he and his wife set about making the mice into great Sumo Rikishi. While she makes dango powder, he goes down the mountain to get some fish; when he returns they bake Tofu Dengaku (YUM!) and sanma dango, stitch together some better quality sumo thongs, and leave them out for the wrestlers. The mice come down to eat the food and put on the thongs, and immediately become stronger and bigger.

Soon there is another match, and of course the mice from the old man and woman’s house win in a tense battle, because of the strength they gained from the food and support of the old man and woman.

It’s cute for the simple fact that it involves mice, doing sumo, with a frog judge, and mice watching in the crowd, in a classic Japanese image of classic Japanese countryside. The old man and woman are done in classic Ghibli style: the old man’s brow is so furrowed that you cannot see his eyes, and have to read his expressions entirely in his pursed lips. They are, of course, sweet and kind and happy, as befits the classic Japanese stereotype of old people. So it’s a cute, sweet story with lots of funny moments (the frog referee, particularly, is hilarious), and a fine showcase of Ghibli’s talent and style. Screenshots can be seen here.

The movie is also an interesting allegory for common Japanese attitudes towards the state of modern Sumo. Here we have 5 small, weak mice who have to take on 5 bigger, more skilled white mice, from a foreign mountain, who always win. However, the story has us believe that if the wrestlers are supported by the locals, and given a bit of special Japanese magic (in the form of food and support) and just try a bit harder, then they will triumph. Of course, this isn’t happening in real Sumo. The big foreign mice are dominating the sport because all the local mice would rather not enter a sport full of bullies and old-fashioned training methods, which requires years of devotion and suffering for little gain. The local mice are already trying as hard as they can. What’s needed is a change in how they try, but this means changing the hidebound traditions of a near-mystical sport. It would all be so much easier if they could take a few performance-enhancing drugs and, with just a bit more support from the local old people, throw the bigger and tougher foreign mice. Sadly, that’s not how sport works. A change in organization style, structure and training – as well as recruitment practices – is needed before the local mice can beat the big foreign ones. No matter how much support the old locals give them.

The Studio Ghibli museum is smaller than expected and a little crowded, but it contains some interesting insights into the animation process and is very pretty and well laid out. It also comes with a movie that can’t be seen anywhere else. I recommend a visit to this place if you are coming to Tokyo. But remember to book ahead, or you will be disappointed!

A Damsel, not in Distress

Today I visited the exhibition of Ukiyo-e prints by Kuniyoshi, at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills. Kuniyoshi is apparently one of the less famous of the Ukiyo-e artists, but his work has been coming back into vogue lately and the exhibition was staged to mark 150 years since his death. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Ukiyo-e, or “images from the floating world,” is a style of print-making and art work dating from pre-Meiji Japan, that focuses on “impermanent” themes detached from the everyday world. It has been credited with influencing the European impressionists, and also was probably the earliest example of mass-produced art. The Mori Art Museum introduced Kuniyoshi as “probably Japan’s greatest graphic designer,” which is an interesting way of thinking about ukiyo-e, and a sign that Japan was quite ahead of the west in this area: I don’t think anyone would really make claims to the existence of graphic design in the West before the 20th century. I think that the ukiyo-e artists were also influential in the development of manga (but don’t quote me on that). I think a lot of ukiyo-e in the later period also served an advertising role.

In Kuniyoshi’s case, images that are detached from everyday concerns seems to have meant that he produced fantastic stories, a smattering of horror, a range of prints on classical Chinese mythological themes, and lots of pictures of actors. The fantastic stories included 108 images of famous warriors, usually in battle or getting up to mischief. The print on this post is an example of his horror, and he also has fantastic themes: a classic adventuring scene of a warrior entering a dank cave on the slopes of Mt. Fuji (through a waterfall curtain – pictured below); Matsumoto Musashi slaying a whale on the open seas (in full battle gear); and various demons in combat with mighty champions. The fantasy and horror images were largely in the middle section of the exhibition, and there were quite a few.

Best not fail this stealth check

Some of Kuniyoshi’s later landscapes were apparently influenced by Dutch masters, and led him to break with some of the contemporary artistic traditions of the time to create a more naturalistic style, and these pictures gave a very nice combination of western aesthetic with classic ukiyo-e colours and imagery. But ukiyo-e is best on its own terms, and best when it is depicting the slightly fantastical. Its slightly strange perspectives and vibrant colours, combined with vaguely (or obviously) supernatural elements, give rise equally well to stunning scenes of battle or quirky re-imaginings of the ordinary lives of the Japanese of the era. I think Kuniyoshi was probably not a master of the style like some of his slightly later colleagues, but he had the ability like them to use patterns of the weather and the landscape, or slight changes to the ordinary perspective of the setting, to turn even something trivial like a couple of peasants walking through the rain into a magical, slightly surreal scene.

Much of Kuniyoshi’s artwork was driven to surrealism by another, more mundane element of life in pre-Meiji Japan: censorship. Banned from depicting the lives of courtesans, entertainers and rowdies directly, he began painting pictures of foxes, monsters, or even goldfish engaged in these activities. There are a whole series of images of cats doing slightly night-lifey things, and also of various supernatural creatures up to no good. The cats are very lifelike and entertaining, and he must have been inspired by this type of satire to simply experiment with the style: there is one picture of cats curled up and bundled together to look like blowfish that is extremely clever, and another idyllic country scene of two goldfish punting their way downriver on a raft, looking for all the world like fishermen returning home at dusk. These images are both surreal and beautiful, and I can’t imagine they have any satirical or political meaning – they’re just examples of the artist experimenting with a style he developed to escape the censor.

The pictures, then, are excellent, and there are a lot: I think there were over 400 on display, so you get to see a lot of work for your 1500 yen. The exhibition was very busy when I went, so you have to line up and move slowly along from picture to picture – the pictures aren’t big enough to take in from a distance, and the Japanese looking at the pictures obviously found a lot to take in that I didn’t – reading the text within the pictures, or picking out various iconography and classic symbolism that I would have missed. In combination these queues for this many pictures make the exhibition a slow and absorbing process, well worth taking your time on. It’s laid out well in sections, so you can understand what the theme of each section is and where it fits in Kuniyoshi’s career. There are also brief English explanations on each picture, which is good because the language of 150 years ago is well beyond my ken. Indeed, if I have any complaints about this exhibition it’s that there is just too much to take in, and you start getting the urge to skip bits (I skipped the “beautiful women” bit). Other than that, though, I would say that this exhibition is worth the money and well worth hiking to Roppongi Hills for. If you’re in Tokyo before February and looking for a decent retrospective of a single influential artist from the ukiyo-e period, I recommend visiting this exhibition.