Breaking news from Jean Snow: Relax Magazine will soon cease publication. This is like the Bible going out of print, if Japanese teenage hipsters were Christians, and there were still Japanese teenage hipsters left. For anyone refusing to admit that Japan is no longer Pizzicato Five, bossa-nova cafes, A Bathing Ape, Puffy, skateboarding, graffiti, collaboration goods, Ryan McGinness art, toy collecting, old records forgotten in the West, taste-discrimination over capital-discrimination, ultra-advanced consumer culture, limited-edition sneakers, Mike Mills, Parco exhibitions, Hiromix the amateur photographer, Godard films, and Cornelius (but instead, Louis Vuitton leather, Roppongi Hills, tight white pants, brown haired Onee-kei, fancy suits with no ties, $200 dinners, Uniqlo, Orange Range, Densha Otoko, Hiromix the celebrity, fake beer, and CanCam), your dream is officially over.
Relax‘s monthly pages singlehandedly codified a certain international aesthetic style emerging out of the post-grunge 90s. Although launched a bit after the Shibuya-kei and Ura-Harajuku trends, Relax was the sharpest media of this unofficial movement and further proved that Japan had more to offer in this curation/sampling based consumer-art than other countries. American kids used to buy the magazine even though they could not read the text, because no one else was going to list 300 obscure reggae records next to pictures of adorable girls and Mark Gonzales art. (And even though it was targeted to boys, the publication apparently had mostly girl readers, which gave the book a post-sexual harmony hovering between male informationitis and female peaceful tenderness.)
Of course, the world moved away from this aesthetic and onto less product-friendly art, and Japanese youngsters moved away from $300 monthly allowances and interest in the outside world. Relax in response reinvented itself as an anti-consumer “lifestyle journal” focusing on health, travel, and eco-sustainability. These are all neat and commendable topics, but they don’t move records, or t-shirts, or double-name camo jackets, nor do they tell you what to wear to your date on Saturday night or how to get girls in bed and what to do with them once you have gotten them there (the way that Popeye once could). Japan’s most popular fashion magazine at the moment is CanCam, selling something like 500,000 copies a month. If one million young females are moving in that direction, there is no way one million young males would have the time to glance through something like Relax without totally and completely falling off the track towards sexual conquest.
As much as I everyone thinks I am always in constant withdrawl about these social changes, I actually shed few tears for Relax or Shibuya-kei. But I do wish that something as sophisticated and world-class would appear on the mainstream Japanese popular culture scene. Art in Japan has gone back underground to certain extent, but it feels like Alternative in 1995, where bands got kicked off Sire and then were not really “Indie” but just “washed-up.” So much under-the-radar art at the moment still operates in the Relax mold: the obsession with products and sales, the attempts to please the same masters, the similar self-framing. Indie bands pass out consumer surveys about their tunes. Art galleries have DJs.
There should be no surprise that Relax is folding in the current Japanese cultural climate, but let us take this moment to remember how important its cultural codification was for boosting the image of Japan in the West. The Relax wave still rolls across the globe. Does anyone think the CanCam wave will be half as fun?