Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage

Daniel Morales reviews the new Murakami Haruki novel, still awaiting English translation. Some basic plot spoilers ensue.

Murakami Haruki’s most recent novel might be the best book he’s written since Norwegian Wood made him a household name in 1987. Published in April, Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage (『色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年』) was an instant best seller, quickly selling out and moving a million copies in just a week.

Unlike the massive tomes that have come to characterize his writing in the years since Norwegian Wood (1988’s Dance Dance Dance, 1994’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2002’s Kafka on the Shore, and 2009’s 1Q84), Murakami’s latest outing is a mere 370 pages in the Japanese. The story also eschews complex metaphysical adventures for a more realistic setting. The work conveys the intense emotional landscape of protagonist Tazaki Tsukuru, a Nagoya-born Millenial whose given name — homophonous with a word meaning “to build” or “to construct” — corresponds nicely with his work as a train station designer.

The novel mirrors the setup of Norwegian Wood to a certain extent. Norwegian Wood was a coming of age story set in the turbulent student movement of the late 1960s in Tokyo, centered around the narrator Toru and his friend Naoko’s struggle to deal with life after the suicide of Naoko’s boyfriend Kizuki. The three were close high school friends, and Toru and Naoko pair up in Tokyo when they graduate and move away from their hometown.

In Tazaki Tsukuru, Tsukuru has four close high school friends, all of whom have “colorful” Japanese surnames: Akamatsu (“Red Pine”), Omi (“Blue Sea”), Shirane (“White Root”), and Kurono (“Black Field”). They playfully refer to each other as Red, Blue, White, and Black, but Tsukuru is always just Tsukuru; this is one of the reasons he’s always felt separate from the group and worried about his place. Red and Blue are men while White and Black are women, and although Tsukuru is attracted to both White and Black, the stability of the group takes precedence. The five friends make up what he comes to consider a “an inseparable and harmonious collective entity.” They have an unspoken vow to spend as much time together as possible, even after Tsukuru has left Nagoya to study train station engineering with a famous professor at a college in Tokyo.

No one dies at the start of this novel, but death is an important issue from the very first line: “From July of his sophomore year of college to the following January, Tazaki Tsukuru lived his life thinking almost exclusively about death.”

During the summer break of his sophomore year, his friends summarily dismiss him without warning. They don’t even take his phone calls, but when they do, they tell him they don’t want to see him. “Hey,” Tsukuru asks when one of them finally answers, “what happened?” “Ask yourself that question,” Blue responds.

Tsukuru spends the next 18 years living with that question and bearing the scars of the loss, which brings him to the present of the novel. Tsukuru is 36 and living in Tokyo, trying to overcome his past and have a serious relationship with Kimoto Sara, a travel agent two years his senior. The two have been on a handful of dates, slept with each other, and seem to like each other and get along well.

The first half of the book is tantalizing in classical Murakami style. He jumps deftly back and forth between Tsukuru’s interactions with Sara in the present and his past: the way he lost 15 pounds and went through a physical transformation during his death-obsessed depression after losing his friends, how he met a classmate named Haida who swam at the same pool and gave him a quiet friend to turn to, the way Haida also disappeared from his life.

Also included are Murakami’s trademark stories within stories: Haida tells a particularly good one about the time his father met a man who was destined to die in a month. And it wouldn’t be a Murakami novel without a few reality-bending “dreams”: Tsukuru has wet dreams that combine White and Black into a single person, and another that suddenly involves a homosexual relationship with Haida.

So it comes as no surprise when Sara puts a halt to their relationship after hearing about his high school friends. “When we were having sex, I felt like you were somewhere on a different plane,” she tells him. “Somewhere separate from the two of us. You were nice, and it was wonderful sex, but…”

But he has too much baggage. Her response, however, is not to cut and run. Instead, she wants to help him fix it. In what feels like a line directly out of “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” one of the very first stories Murakami ever wrote, Sara says, “Tell me their names. You can decide what happens after that. If, after certain things become clear, you still don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to. Because it’s your problem. But despite that, I just happen to be interested in them. I want to know more about them. About the people that are still, even now, imprinted on your back.”

Using her powers of travel agency for good, she tracks down the four friends, researches their situations a bit, and the second half of the book becomes a Murakami quest novel. Murakami has had a tendency to mediate his main characters in the past, and he’s been particularly obsessed with the telephone as symbol. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle begins with a telephone call. Norwegian Wood ends with one. Phones play a huge part in communication within 1Q84, and Murakami has also used phones in countless short stories, notably “The Year of Spaghetti” and “Nausea 1979.” In every case, the phones represent the strangeness of human interaction as a whole: here we all are, communicating with each other, but is that the best we can do? Are we only ever “talking on the phone”? Are we always separate? When characters aren’t communicating over the phone, their interactions are often mediated by letters, dreams, or stories.

There is some of this in Tazaki Tsukuru, but it’s refreshing to see Murakami run these characters into each other and have them talk it out in person. Tsukuru is forced out of his comfort zone in Tokyo, back to his hometown Nagoya, and even outside Japan to find out what caused the break in college. Confronting his friends face to face, he finds, as you might expect, the unexpected.

After a buildup that derives a lot of narrative drive from shifting gears and cliffhanger chapter endings that aren’t resolved until two chapters later, the second half of the book becomes somewhat linear. We meet the friends, learn how their lives have changed, and Tsukuru returns to Tokyo to see what he can make of things with Sara.

Before Haida disappears from Tsukuru’s life, less painfully but equally mysteriously as the four colorful friends, he makes the following remark: “It’s strange: No matter how calm and consistent everyone’s life appears to be, it seems like there’s always a period of major collapse. You might even call it a time for them to just lose it completely. I think humans probably need milestones like that.”

This seems to be what Murakami is exploring in this book. Can Tsukuru recover from his major collapse and get to a point where he feels comfortable being in a relationship, which necessarily requires one to emerge from the shell of self and trust another person?

The book has its weaknesses. The twists in the latter half of the story aren’t as compelling as some of his great novels, and Murakami is clearly still getting comfortable with third person narration — this is only his second full book told from that point of view.

The narrative balance is also off a little. Murakami adds in flashbacks at the end which would have been far more helpful in the front half of the novel. We learn very little about the four friends, so meeting their new, 36-year-old versions doesn’t feel as weighty to readers as it must to Tsukuru, and the flashbacks make this clear.

And as with many of Murakami’s work, resolution of any sort is uncertain. But after 1Q84, a winding book filled with a strange mythology that didn’t feel completely fleshed out, Tazaki Tsukuru is a book that knows its scope, one that Murakami started as a short story and then let go longer as he followed Tsukuru on his journey. Following Tsukuru is the main point here; structurally the book is bookended by beginning and ending sections that dive deep into his mindset and provide an anatomy of love and loss as experiences.

English readers will have to wait for Phillip Gabriel to finish his translation, which he’s said he’ll be able to do within the year, putting it on shelves in your neighborhood at some point next year. It’s worth the wait this time.

Daniel MORALES
October 4, 2013

Daniel Morales lives in Tokyo and blogs at howtojaponese.com.

What We Did on Summer (and Spring and Winter) Vacation

Néojaponisme puts the “occasionally-published” into “occasionally-published web journal.”

As you may have noticed, Néojaponisme has not been overflowing with content in 2013. I, David W. Marxy, III, take the full brunt of responsibility, but I have an excuse. I am writing a overly-detailed book on the history of American menswear in Japan.

My original idea to look at the development of Ivy League fashion in Japan — a before, after, and behind-the-scenes of photo book Take Ivy — but my prospective publisher made the extremely sensible call of expanding the narrative into the world’s first English-language cultural history of Japan’s import, absorption, and export of traditional American clothing — i.e., VAN Jacket, the Miyuki-zoku, Okayama denim, Heavy Duty, Popeye, Hamatora, Uraharajuku, and the excitement around Japanese Americana back in America. The story starts in 1911 and will end in present times. This may sound boring for non-fashion enthusiasts but about 90% of the book is about the people and stories around the clothing rather than the intricacies of fashion design, like hook vents, Union Specials, and open-end spinning (although these all make an appearance).

The reason for my tackling this specific subject matter is that the people who first brought American fashion in the early 1960s are hitting about 80 years old. Their memories and health are fading — or at risk of doing so soon. (We sadly lost Take Ivy photographer Hayashida Teruyoshi just last month.) If there is a time to write this book, it’s now.

So far I’ve written 50,000 words and counting — probably the most I’ve ever written about anything in my entire life, and already exceeding the total output of my most prolific year of blogging. Books are much harder projects for a whole variety of reasons, but it’s been rewarding and stimulating to sit down and really delve into a single topic — especially one that flows through a very small set of individuals and organizations who are all linked. It’s also been fun to interview lots of people who only remember dates by the Showa year. If you’re interested in the history of Japanese fashion, I post side stories, trivia, and things cut from the book over at ametorajapan.tumblr.com.

The writing requires a lot of organization and discipline, so I have had less time for other pieces (except my satirical, non-hoax “Open Letter to Kanye West from the Association of French Bakers” on Medium.com, which Politico notes, too easily fooled mainstream media outlets such as Time and Fox News).

I, Ian Lynam, have been equally to blame for the lack of content here. It’s been a very busy past number of months for many of the same reasons that David mentioned above. I have been busy working on a book of collected essays, as well as in the initial stages of another book on the emergence of Japanese Modern graphic design.

These efforts have been compounded by a number of editorial and curatorial projects. I wrote, edited, and designed a new 96-page feature on the legacy of the California Institute of the Arts in issue #360 of Idea Magazine recently, the result of a weeklong workshop that Idea Editor-In-Chief Kiyonori Muroga and I held earlier this year at the Valencia, California school (and my alma mater). That workshop sucked up a good chunk of time, as did preparing our lecture — the first on the birth of the Japanese graphic design press ever delivered in English.

Additionally, I just put together Letterfirm, an exhibition of expressive typography in conjunction with North America’s premier typography conference TypeCon. The Portland, Oregon show featured the work of 24 designers from all over the world. Published along with the exhibition was The Letterfirm Reader, a 96-page booklet of recent essays on graphic design, aesthetics, history, and criticism.

Okay so that’s what we weren’t writing on the site. We do have some plans for Néojaponisme pieces in the coming weeks and months. Maybe get Feedly or one of those new Google Reader clones to follow us. Otherwise we will alert you to new things on our Twitter account as well as Google+. We’re always open to pitches but know in advance that we’re always really, really picky.

Team NÉOJAPONISME
September 9, 2013

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

IDEA X CalArts

IDEA X CalArts

Idea Magazine’s Kiyonori Muroga and Ian Lynam will be giving a lecture and week-long workshop at CalArts in Valencia, California. The accompanying lecture will be on Thursday April 11th at 7pm and is open to the public.

Ian LYNAM
March 21, 2013

Ian Lynam is a graphic designer living in Tokyo and the art director of Neojaponisme. His website is located at ianlynam.com. His new book, Parallel Strokes, on the intersection of graffiti and typography is available now.

The Year 2012 in Japan

Néojaponisme 2012 Year-end Wrap-Up!

The Year Nothing Happened / W. David MARX
We should all feel blessed that Japan did not see any further tragic natural disasters this year, but at the same time, the widely-desired, post-earthquake national resurgence was not exactly forthcoming. If the last decade saw an explosion of recessionary culture in Japan, 2012 suggested that even this recessionary culture could be on the wane, leaving us a true social vacuum. To have culture, people have to participate in society; to have political change, people have to vote and organize; to have global economic success, companies must make products that the world wants.

None of this happened, however, and in its place, we got nothing new. Instead of a more terrible AKB48-like thing, we got just slightly less AKB48. Instead of extreme political change, the disheartened electorate voted for a return to LDP rule.

A decade ago there was something slightly interesting in the long decline: How would a truly advanced country handle poor economic prospects, fatal demographics, and dwindling global relevance? But now in 2012 we’re too familiar with the very process of decline. We all know that 2013 will just see a little more slouching in the same direction — more nothing. And while the stakes are getting higher and higher for this great nation to turn things around, the stakes for any individual action, field, or event could not feel any lower.

Nothing really happened in 2012, but for your reading pleasure, here are a few things that transpired this year.

Tokyo Skytree / Matt ALT
Even if you don’t appreciate the architecture (or the neato circular pulsing at night), any fan of Japanese entertainment has to pay the Tokyo Skytree a certain grudging respect, if for no other reason than that it serves up its lifeblood — a stable high-definition television signal. But there are two big strikes against the Skytree. In a city filled with perfectly free observation decks (like those of the the iconic Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building), it’s hard to imagine forking out ¥2,000 a head for an elevator ride. But more importantly, every Tokyoite knows in their heart of hearts that the Skytree isn’t really part of the skyline until it gets smashed to pieces in a giant monster movie.

The Election / Adam RICHARDS
Through some weird twist of fate, Abe Shinzo and his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party regained control of Japan’s messy political system, giving Abe of all people a second stint as prime minister. For three years, the rival Democratic party attempted to forge a new direction for the country but were mired in disagreements on which direction to take, a series of petty scandals, mismanagement following the March 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, and a mixed bag of policy decisions. The most lasting of these unpopular policies was to pass a consumption tax hike together with the LDP, in a deal that also kickstarted talks to fundamentally revise Japan’s social safety net protections.

So when Prime Mnister Noda called a snap election as part of said deal, a disappointed electorate returned the LDP to power in resounding fashion. The returning Abe administration has taken on a decidedly bolder policy agenda than when he first came around in 2006, when he tried unsuccessfully to maintain the positive momentum of the Koizumi years. Now his first priority is ending deflation, seemingly at all costs, enlisting former PM Taro Aso as finance minister to keep the bureaucrats from meddling. Once that’s out of the way, he wants to revise the constitution; not to change the pacifist Article 9, at least at first, but to lower the threshold for triggering a referendum for proposed revisions from a 2/3 Diet vote to a simple majority. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Abe will manage to stay in office long enough to do any of this.

Nuclear Protests in Japan / W. David MARX
In 2012, there were many protests against nuclear power in Japan. The DPJ government did nothing concrete in response to these protests, and then the most pro-nuclear political party — the LDP — won back power.

Ishihara Shintaro Trolls the Planet / Connor SHEPHERD
If you think Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintarō’s most entertaining days are behind him, last summer he raised the bar for global-scale trolling with his offer to buy the Senkaku Islands from the Japanese private citizen who owned them. There is ostensibly no practical reason why Tokyo would want or need some unpopulated islands hundreds of miles away from the city, so when Ishihara raised ¥1 billion from some friends to purchase them, we can assume that he did so for no reason other than to anger the Chinese, who want the islands for their awesome hypothetical oil and gas. And it worked — the Chinese got angry! And by essentially forcing the Japanese central government to buy them before he could, he single-handedly caused a significant international incident. Seriously, this guy is a pro.

Operation “Sue-my-datchi” / Matt ALT
2011′s disaster relief “Operation Tomodachi” marked a rare high point in the often strained relationship between Japan and the US military. Late this year, however, eight crewmen from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan announced a lawsuit against TEPCO for exposure to radiation, demanding $40 million in compensation and punitive damages. Let’s get this straight: A group of men serving aboard a floating arsenal packing not one but two nuclear reactors and ostensibly engaged in rescue operations, are suing the very country they were trying to assist in the midst of a disaster. One might hope they’d donate any winnings to those who actually lost families and homes, but given the chutzpah needed to even raise a suit like this, it’s probably too much to wish for.

Grandma Went to Jail / Nick DONEGAN
While much is made of Japan’s graying population and the perceptions of filial respect shown by its youth, 2012 saw the elderly turn towards a new activity: crime. With a strangely “understanding” white paper from the Ministry of Justice, and the number of rather gruesome incidents starring the gentile grand-figure, 2012 was a banner year for showcasing granny’s true skills with a knife. With the overall crime rate on the decline — by the National Police Agency’s estimation, at 5.8% per year — and the world economy on the possible brink of recovery, perhaps we will look back on 2012 as “just a phase” in the high-stakes, rebellious, and attention-seeking world of the Japanese pensioner.

Macabre Murder Factory Flies Under the Radar / Adam RICHARDS
Over a period of decades, one woman orchestrated a criminal operation specializing in the systematic kidnapping, torture, defrauding, imprisonment, and murder of perhaps dozens in Hyogo Prefecture’s Amagasaki. Before her arrest this year, Sumida Miyoko would hire thugs to storm the house of an intended target family, subdue them, and proceed to keep them in captivity as she gradually emptied their bank accounts and took ownership of their property. To aid her reign of terror, she would force children to beat their parents while other family members watched. She maintained an apartment full of human doghouses, some of which were on the balcony to keep people for bad behavior during the winter. At least one died from injuries sustained there, while other victims were found in states of extreme starvation, many beaten severely and one with scars making her all but unrecognizable. One daughter of a victim family caught Stockholm Syndrome, became a key accomplice, married Sumida’s son, and had a child.

The grisly details do not stop there, but after reading about this story I had to wonder why on earth isn’t this the Crime of the Century? Perhaps because it highlights so many of the embarrassing systemic problems of Japanese society — police inertia (police refused to intervene on behalf of multiple victims), a lack of neighborly concern, the shocking ease of defrauding Japan’s various bureaucratic systems, etc. Sumida recently killed herself in prison, deftly avoiding justice in a final bit of police bungling that sends a fitting message for those of us living here: When the rules aren’t well enforced, as is so often the case in Japan, it’s the bullies and monsters that will have the upper hand.

Néojaponisme 2012 Year-end Wrap-Up!

Japanese Electronic Maker Doom / Nick DONEGAN and Adam RICHARDS
2012 was one of the most disastrous years for the bloated electronics industry since its inception. Sharp, Panasonic, and Sony started the year off with bad news but thoughtful hopes — selling off factories to Chinese investors, realigning product foci, and even looking to create new product lines! — but ended up reporting losses totaling to ¥1.23 trillion ($15.3 billion). The massive investments failed to pay off, and now Sharp, the most cash strapped of the once-mighty giant manufacturers, looks increasingly likely to end up mostly a parts supplier for Apple. With Sharp supplying iPhone and iPad panels, Sony making the camera sensors, and a small army of smaller manufacturers making many other components, the Japanese electronics industry as a whole seems fated to lack compelling products of its own, forcing it to occupy the less glamorous and less profitable role as the world’s ultra high-tech parts maker.

Japan Keeps Buying US/UK Tech, Nobody Cares / Connor SHEPHERD
Here’s something you might not know: Over the past two years, companies from Japan have been buying all kinds of high-tech companies in the United States and Britain. At the tail end of 2010, social-games giant DeNA bought the American mobile game shop ngmoco for a WTF-level $400 million, and that kicked off a crazy chain of Japanese companies gobbling up US and UK assets (look how many companies mentioned in this article are high-tech), ending with Softbank buying Sprint and HR/classified ad giant Recruit snapping up jobs-listing startup Indeed.com for you-know-what’s-cool-a-billion-dollars (allegedly, not much about this deal is transparent). Despite all this, no part of these deals made any headway towards complicating the general narrative of Japan’s decline.

The Rise of Smartphones / Adam RICHARDS
2012 was undisputedly the year of the smartphone. I bought an iPhone in late 2011, and it has made me curious about what devices my fellow Tokyo commuters are using. Over the past 12 months there has been a remarkable shift. Initially there were maybe one or two smartphone users vs. traditional feature phones in Tokyo, and now the ratio is reversed. I almost feel pity for people who have not opted for a smartphone at this point. By 2013 a clear majority will have them, giving them access to the “real” Internet (and not bastardized versions for feature phones), often for the first time.

Internet Rage Flourishes / Adam RICHARDS
For years now, the mainstream media’s response to — and hence the elite’s general impression of — the Internet was to see it as a threat, prompting all manner of scare stories even as the general population found its own uses for it. And politicians made sure to have a presence there but seldom would turn to it for either policy advice or a source of popular support. In 2012, however, Internet rage became much more visible in public discourse. Earlier this year a scandal erupted on the Internet when it was found that a popular comedian’s mother was fraudulently receiving welfare benefits. Not surprisingly, the right wing Internet communities (by far the most visible on the Japanese web) railed against what they saw as an unworthy program that gives cash to the undeserving. What was surprising, however, was that the political class — both then ruling party DPJ and opposition LDP — reacted to the scandal with measures aimed at responding to their concerns. One might be tempted to praise politicians for joining the modern age as it were, but net right wingers are mostly out of step with the general public (not to mention good policy). The question now is whether new PM Abe will be as eager to please what he sees as a core constituency.

Video Games / Matt ALT
2012 marked Microsoft’s decision to abandon the Tokyo Game Show. Many pundits spun the move as yet another symptom of the Japanese game industry’s decline. Others spun it as yet another example of Japanese gamers’ traditional disdain for the fetishistic first-person violence of American shooting games. But the real story was about the rise of mobile gaming aggregators like Gree and DeNA, whose floor displays dominated those of traditional Japanese console game developers in terms of both size and bombast. Their apps are wildly popular in Japan, but can they crack the foreign marketplace?

Japanese Game Developers / Jean SNOW
The world gaming community has not been kind to Japanese game developers in recent years. In response, a majority of the games being produced in Japan overly cater to the home audience, leaving the rest of the world looking to the West for their gaming entertainment. Not a good thing for the Japanese gaming industry, considering the impact gaming has in today’s culture (see iOS gaming and blockbuster launches of the latest iteration in the Call of Duty series) and especially sad considering that many a longtime gamer was raised on Japanese-produced titles and consoles. But as 2012 comes to a close, there are some signs — like RPG king Square Enix aggressively releasing titles on iOS and Android — that all may not be lost.

Néojaponisme 2012 Year-end Wrap-Up!

The Pop Music Charts in 2012 / Ian MARTIN
At the end of every year, chart organisation Oricon publishes its rankings of the best-selling music of the year, and for the past few years the singles charts have been congealing like a scab around mass idol collective AKB48. This year they and their sister groups accounted for twelve of the top twenty, with the other eight positions taken by boy bands from the stable of the more established evil organisation in pop Johnny & Associates. Meanwhile the album charts were dominated by “best of” repackagings of older artists like Matsutoya Yumi, Yamashita Tatsuro, Exile, and Mr. Children, who held both of the top two positions with their “Micro” and “Macro” compilations. K-Pop was largely absent from the rankings, although KARA and Girls’ Generation continue to be reasonably strong sellers. With singles largely existing as a means for fans to display their love for idols, albums seemingly an exercise in nostalgia for a gradually ageing fanbase, and either the industry or the market turning away from overseas influences, the future looks pretty dismal for the Japanese pop mainstream.

Shugo Tokumaru — In Focus? / W. David MARX
The sweeping and majestic guitar strums of 2010’s Port Entropy took Japanese genius songwriter-producer Shugo Tokumaru from international Pitchfork darling to the heights of indie fame in his home country, complete with his songs plastered under TV CMs for blue-chippers Sony and JAL. With his new In Focus? Tokumaru could have easily gone full-out, feel-good J-Pop, but instead took a step back to his daring, experimental roots — resulting in what is easily the year’s best Japanese record. His eclectic instrumentation may have been further neutralized into a mellow mix, but peppy, peppy songs like “Katachi” and “Down Down” took Tokumaru to new places with fully danceable rhythms and tight pop structure. The whole thing is held together with the glue of cartoonish micro set pieces, weird time signatures, inventive vocal melodies, sped-up munchkin background vocals, and 1960s vocal jazz references. Really, what other miracles could we possibly want from this musical Messiah?

Best Indie Albums / Ian MARTIN
Aside from Shugo Tokumaru, the indie and DIY scenes continued to release a wide array of great music under the radar. Fukuoka all-girl indie supergroup Miu Mau released the News EP on CD/R, with a combination of chunky synths, sweet harmonies and spindly, flat, metallic guitars wandering over tunes ranging from the lo-fi Shibuya-kei of “Neon Sign” to the retro-futurist new wave Asiatica of “Mirai no Classic.” Another all-girl three-piece Fancynumnum put out the more densely layered No Now, bringing mantric krautrock beats and textures together with kayōkyoku-like melodies. One of the most extraordinary albums of the year was minimalist psychedelic post-punk band Extruders’ Pray, a live album recorded in a Buddhist temple and released as a CD/R in a brown paper bag, while at another extreme Half Sports showed that 1980s styled guitar pop doesn’t have to be gloomy and affected with the raucous, ramshackle Slice Of Our City providing moment after moment of joyous power pop. Finally, one of the most category-defying and downright odd albums of the year was Kumamoto band Doit Science’s Beefheartian splatterfest Information, with its off-kilter melodies, disorientating collision of rhythms, and wide-eyed diversions into barbershop.

No Dancing / Ian LYNAM
June saw a handful of protests to the recent renewed enforcement of a 1984 addition to the Entertainment Business Control Law that bans dancing in music venues and clubs with less than a 66 square meter floor. Since 2010, Japanese law enforcement agencies have gone out of their way to crack down on dancing in small clubs in Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka and Osaka. With ten raids in 2010, twenty-one in 2011, and an as-yet undisclosed, yet potentially higher number in 2012, the government is doing its absolute best to uphold an archaic law. The odd thing is that the law was originally instituted in 1948 to crack down on prostitution. As for the reasoning in the contemporary context, the jury is still out.

Jail Time for Downloading / Ian LYNAM
Both houses of the Diet passed a law that added punishments to pre-existing anti-piracy legislation in June of this year, and it came into effect in October. Draconian in nature due to the sprawling range of content and lack of clear definition, this new legal framework, in essence, means watching pirated content or making a backup copy of a DVD can get you up to two years in prison or fines up to ¥2 million. (Don’t worry, Tsutaya fans — ripping CDs is legal.) A key (if untested) loophole that has been discerned thus far is that the viewer must be aware of their pirate action’s illegality. The law requires a rightsholder to identify and report violations themselves, and so far no one has been arrested. All the same, tech-savvy Japan residents would be wise to watch their digital backs.

Sony Music Japan on iTunes / W. David MARX
Sony Music Japan — one of Japan’s biggest music labels — finally put its domestic catalog on Apple’s iTunes Music Store. The lesson here is that Japanese companies can’t stop history or progress, but they can delay for a very long time.

Adrian Favell vs. Nara Yoshitomo / W. David MARX
Earlier in 2012, British sociologist Adrian Favell published an academic look at the rise of Japanese contemporary art titled Before and After Superflat. There was little notice in Japan until a translated version of his chapter on Nara Yoshitomo “as a businessman” hit the desk of… Nara Yoshitomo. The aging punk rocking artist took to his Twitter account to vent his spleen (calling Favell lots of not nice things, including “会ったこともない外人”) and denouncing the article as being factually inaccurate. The controversy boiled down to Favell’s challenge of Nara’s image as a “naïve” pure painter; Nara did not like being called “consummate slacker CEO” — at least the “CEO” part. Most interestingly, this controversy created a wave of people in the Japanese art world who rushed to defend Nara against the evils of foreign academic analysis.

Modern Times / Ian LYNAM
It’s been a big year for Tokyo-based Taiwanese-American photographer Patrick Tsai. After an upset at the Canon “New Cosmos of Photography” competition, he went on to have his first monograph Modern Times published by boutique photo publishing house Nakarokusha. A slew of exhibitions in Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, and elsewhere followed, as well as being picked by Time Magazine’s for its best photo books of the year. Modern Times is now being displayed in the art/photography sections of every major bookstore in the country at present — a rarity when most foreigners’ work is valued as an import. Tsai has managed to cultivate a body of work that is deemed worthwhile during their his time spent domestically in Japan.

Takamine Tadasu’s Solo Show / Darryl Jingwen WEE
Almost two years after the fact, Takamine Tadasu presented one of the more nuanced responses to the aftermath of 3/11 by casting a penetrating eye on parts of the Japanese psyche that are often neglected, shrugged off, or willfully ignored. Highlights of his show at Art Tower Mito included a room littered with shambolic reams of paper filled with xenophobic, jingoistic hate speech and bulletin board ephemera, and revolving LED signs that churn out the trite hyōgo slogans that festoon every street corner and public transportation facility in the country. The deft spatial composition of this show that straddles theater set and conceptual, text-based art, combined with a finely balanced sense of irony — as well as fortuitous timing hot on the heels of a rather disappointing election — makes this a highlight of the past year in contemporary art.

Goldblatt in Delight Shock about Murakami Loss / Matt TREYVAUD
Not only did Murakami Haruki not win the Nobel Prize this year, actual winner Mo Yan‘s English translator Howard Goldblatt was reportedly “delighted that the other Asian titan, Japanese author Haruki Murakami [...] didn’t win.” The sentence ends “… when so many other Asian writers get so little attention in the West,” which, okay, admirable sentiments we can all get behind, but still — ouch, man. Next year’s winner will probably just hire a small child to point at Murakami and laugh. (Goldblatt’s Granta interview is also worth reading.)

The Return of the King / Matt TREYVAUD
Ten years after delivering a Tale of Genji for people who like commas and poetry, Royall Tyler has graced the world with a The Tale of the Heike for people who like line breaks (and homework). Fans of tales about premodern Japanese entities with two-syllable names might also want to check out the translation of the Ise Monogatari Tyler banged out in the interim with Joshua S. Mostow.

New Books about Old Music / Matt TREYVAUD
In the world of comics, Amyū’s Kono oto tomare! 『この音とまれ!』 took on the monumental task of making koto music cool (mainly by putting very little actual koto music in the story).On the other hand, 2012 did also see the republication of jiuta master Tomiyama Seikin I’s 1966 Seikin: jiuta shugyō 『清琴 地うた修行』 (as the meat of Jiuta/sōkyoku no sekai『地歌・箏曲の世界』) and Okamoto Chikugai’s Shakuhachi zuisō shū 『尺八随想集』, so the news was not all bad.

Best Action Manga of 2012 / Matthew PENNEY
Yūyami Tokkotai (Twilight Suicide Squad) by Oshikiri Rensuke is a real seinen original that combines high school club stuff, gags, hand-to-hand combat with a ridiculous sense of impact, and some genuinely creepy J-horror scenes that borrow equally from the 1990s and 2000s hits (Ring, Audition, Ju-on) and classic films based on Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi novels. Moving deftly between parody and homage and driving almost immediately into a single-arc story that at ten volumes is already foreshadowing a tight and timely conclusion, Yūyami Tokkotai stands out from the many similar series on the market that are ponderously drawing out their stories past thirty volumes and beyond any artistic credibility.

Meanwhile Hunter x Hunter is a series that due to juvenile early arcs and a long hiatus has not built the international fan-base of Shonen Jump brethren Bleach and Naruto. Creator Togashi Yoshihiro, best known for his work on Yu Yu Hakusho, is a experienced creator and in 2011-2012 has successfully introduced a darker tone along with artistic experimentation in the fight scenes — characters take on the form of Buddhist statues and one protagonist’s lines become almost calligraphy-like as he powers up, a far cry from the usual (and increasingly sterile) speed lines and flaming auras.

Best “Artistic” Manga of 2012 / Matthew PENNEY
Maruo Suehiro’s Binzume no Jigoku (Bottled Hell) shows that the ero-guro master continues to grow as an artist. In the title adaptation of Yumeno Kyusaku’s 1928 novella, Maruo brings alive a natural environment that is equally beautiful and terrifying, mirroring perfectly the combination of sexual desire and horror that tears at the protagonists — a shipwrecked adolescent brother and sister. Where Maruo once went for licking eyeballs, he now maintains his transgressive style with symbolism and understatement. Even better, the volume also contains a number of shorts that show he can still summon the old grotesquerie on cue.

Also, Yukimura Makoto’s Vinland Saga is finally beginning to hit the thematic highs of the author’s past hit Planetes. Yukimura uses an old Norse setting to deal with slavery and structures of power and hints that his version of the push to the “new world” is rooted in utopian anarchism.

Fukushima Manga / Matthew PENNEY
There have been over a dozen volume length manga dealing with the March 11, 2011 tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. The most challenging is Imashiro Takashi’s Genpatsu genma taisen (the title combines “genpatsu” — nuclear power — with the name of the series of novels about a psychic invader from deep space that became the famous/infamous 1983 anime move Harmagedon) which captures the anger felt by many readers while looking critically at the political economy of nuclear power in Japan.

Kobayashi Yoshinori’s (yes, that Kobayashi Yoshinori) Datsu-Genpatsu Ron (On Abandoning Nuclear Power) makes a strong critique of Japan’s nuclear industry from the Right, asking why the public should be asked to pay month after month to electrical monopolies while still picking up the tab to the tune of hundreds of times the company’s stock value if something goes wrong. Kobayashi, of course, believes that while nuclear power is a no-no; nuclear weapons are where Japan should be looking. On the whole, this volume is less deliberately offensive than most of his work and certainly shows a shadow of the mid-1990s Kobayashi who was held to be an adroit progressive before Sensōron (On War) blew everything up.

The most powerful manga on the 3.11 disasters deals with the tsunami rather than the nuclear crisis. The twenty-first volume of Kusaka Riki’s Helpman! (a reference to elder care “helpers”) looks at the quake and inundation of Tōhoku communities from the point of view of the elderly and care workers. Over half of the total dead were 65 or older and hundreds of elderly died in shelters in the days and weeks after the crisis. Helpman! draws attention to this side of the tragedy, which was often homogenized as a “national” or “regional” experience, without losing the sharp affective high points of a mature seinen style. Helpman! is a underrated series that keeps getting better and shows that mainstream manga magazines (in this case, Evening) continue to explore new possibilities for the medium.

Team NÉOJAPONISME
December 28, 2012

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

Glue Vapors & Go: The Life of Awazu Kiyoshi

This story originally appeared in Slanted #14 and was reprinted in my self-published booklet Space Is The Place Supplement.

Nibankanbiru

I attended high school in the countryside of upstate New York1 during the very late ’80s and nascent ’90s. During this time, a popular T-shirt for the local hayseed headbangers to wear was a Metallica tee that bore the slogan “We Were Metal When Metal Wasn’t Cool.” This is essentially the same ethos behind the late Japanese graphic designer Awazu Kiyoshi’s body of work in the 1980s — he was analog when analog wasn’t cool. The world was waiting with baited breath for the digital revolution to arrive, doing their damnedest to create a seamless world of perfect models populating perfect advertising efforts, but Kiyoshi Awazu did an about-face and embraced the primitive side of commercial art. And this is why I lionize him as a figure in Japan’s design history. In that era’s world enamored with slick façades, his romance with the crude and imperfect feels like a breath of fresh air, even forty years after creating his most vital work.2

I had been biding my time, waiting for a decent eulogy-in-print of Awazu in the international graphic design press since he passed away in April 2009. Awazu was among the upper echelon of Japanese graphic designers throughout his career domestically, though has received far less attention abroad than his peers Yokoo Tadanori and Tana’ami Keiichi. But it looks like Awazu’s time in the spotlight isn’t coming, so I’ve taken up the task here in hopes of encouraging design aesthetes internationally to examine his life and body of work. It’s funny — the same lack of sentiment expressed abroad is neatly mirrored in Japan. Chatting with Muroga Kiyonori, the editor-in-chief of Idea Magazine, he expressed the view that he’d always felt that Awazu was a lesser force than his contemporaries, but with his passing, Awazu’s lifework is potentially worth a deeper study. With that unconscious taunt, I picked up the gauntlet…

Kiyoshi Awazu

Born in 1929, the self-taught Awazu took up the mantle of graphic designer in 1954, designing posters for kabuki and less-popular shingeki theatrical troupes such as Shinkyo Gekidan, Zenshinza, and Shinseisazuka. This was followed by a number of years in which he created posters for film studios such as Dokuritsu Eiga and Nikkatsu, quickly gaining notoriety for his deft mixture of illustration, custom lettering, and detailed typography. Awazu’s 1955 poster “Give Back Our Sea” was both award-winning and culturally resonant, establishing the designer as an advocate of social causes through his portrayal of a fisherman barred from his trade. His posters for the 1957 documentary The Crying Whales and the 1957 play Chuji Kunisawa further cemented Awazu’s position as a young designer to watch.

Awazu spent the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s hard at work, refining his folk-influenced style, experimenting with color and form, and investigating the possibilities of chance processes after an encounter with composer John Cage. In a bold move at the time, Awazu consistently declined invitations to join advertising agencies and larger design studios, opting for a more autonomously directed career outside of advertising. His frequent collaborations with architects helped infuse some of Japan’s national monuments with a proto-hippie folk sensibility that eschewed the hard edges of modernism for an organic massing of lines and naturalistic form. The ’60s found Awazu continuing his work in film, creating fascinating poster designs for the avant garde film The Woman In The Dunes, and Kwaidan, an adaptation of four traditional Japanese ghost stories as popularized by journalist, amateur ethnologist, purported orientalist, and plural miscenegist writer3 Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. Freewheeling formal experimentation influenced by Pop Art and ’60s counterculture from both abroad and home in Japan also found their way into his work, primarily influencing Awazu’s bold color schemes, raw linework, and nuanced typography.4 Traces of Ben Shahn‘s illustrative approach and lettering pop up in Awazu’s work in the 1960s, as do elements of the Push Pin Studios appropriation of “olde timey” advertising cuts deployed decoratively, a compositional approach influenced by Yokoo Tadanori, concentric linework, and a reliance upon overprinting for dazzling optical effects.

Canonized for his early works, Awazu’s veer into graphic left-field in the late ’60s and ’70s seems to only be the territory of visual connoisseurs. I personally know of a grand total of two other giant fans of his work amongst design aficionados abroad. Undocumented in English is a wide swath of experimentation for the fields of architecture and theater from this period — the excitement of British paper architects Archigram married to the decorative elements of ukiyo-e expressed through the medium of coarse-grained silkscreen. Traditional motifs are filtered through at-times highly disturbing contemporary lens — dismembered heads emitting copious bodily fluids and the omnipresent crows of Tokyo crying tears of shame, interleaved with expressive hand-drawn characters, their strokes swollen and collapsing upon themselves.

What was potentially most notable about Awazu’s work in the 1970s and 1980s was his devotion to the poster as a form of graphic expression in a time when public perception and appreciation shifted from “pure” graphic design to more photo-reliant, advertising-based big budget initiatives such as those produced by art directors like Ishioka Eikoh for the PARCO department store chain spanning film, print, and broadcast. While Japan’s design industry moved wholesale to a fascination with the gloss and sheen of the photograph and the airbrush, Awazu battered away via pen, brush, ink, and press type, creating virtual cosmoses of flattened figure/ground relations.

Despite being out-of-step with visual trends at that time, Awazu had established himself as a force to be reckoned with, and commissions continued with an increased focus on collaborative projects in the field of architecture. Most notable of these projects was Awazu’s exterior for the Nibankan Building5 in the red-light district Kabukicho. Reminiscent of proposed early Modern Japanese kiosk designs, the Nibankan Building’s various planes are pasted with bright colors and geometric shapes — like a Pop Art painting fragmented and vomited on a simplified, though not simplistic multi-planar structure. Designed by architect Takeyama Minoru, the building was featured on the cover of Charles Jencks’ breakthrough 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. The collaborative, forward-thinking, and formal approach as well as the holistic graphic treatment were an early precursor of hyper-decorative treatments by other Post-Modern architects, most notably Michael Graves. Included in the architectural plan was a proposal for five-year interval graphic revisits, the pop colors and shapes to be revisited regularly. Adventurous and forward-thinking, the re-skinning of the building was meant to mirror the constant change that is so much the innate essence of Kabukicho.

Nestled in nearby Harajuku, the Awazu Design Office chugged away — Awazu and an assistant working through each day’s assignments, breaking for extended games of go amidst the fumes of Krazy Glue, Awazu’s adhesive of choice6. He preferred the clear, very, very permanent sealant for paste-up in lieu of the then-typical rubber cement. Then in 1988, the company quietly packed up and relocated to a remote part of Kawasaki where Awazu had Kyoto Station architect Hara Hiroshi build him a palatial modern home with an in-house studio amongst the rice fields and rolling hills of Kanagawa. From his new home, Awazu continued his assorted activities, exhibiting internationally, taking on design commissions, sculpting, and screenprinting.

In 2000, Awazu took over the job of Director of the Toppan Printing Corporation’s7 Printing Museum, the ardent independent contractor finally becoming a “company man.” Awazu steered the museum situated in the industrial Edogawabashi district to numerous awards and an enhanced status amongst cultural institutions in Tokyo. Meanwhile, he continued to actively research and exhibit, exploring a long-held interest in the petroglyphs of Native Americans, which culminated in an exhibition on the subject.

Awazu passed away in his beloved Kawasaki after an extended bout with pneumonia at the age of 80. His website is still operational as of December 11, 2011. It has yet to mention his death.8

Walking through Kabukicho today at midday, the Nibankan Building stands disheveled and worn. The last graphic facelift was probably a decade ago. Most of the businesses in the building appear to be closed — a mini-economy of bath houses, pachinko parlors, and assorted tawdry service providers boarded-up and shut, most likely forever. Looking up at one of Awazu’s masterworks, a raspy voice from nearby resonated in my ear — a proposition from a prostitute. Leveling my eyes at her, I smiled and said, politely, “No, but thank you” in Japanese. I’m a service provider, too, as was Awazu-san, and looking at the lovely giant red number 2 topping the building and the striped and concentric circled amalgam that is pasted on the building’s surface, I couldn’t have been more adequately pleasured.

1Pain.

2And, frankly, this statement stands for his contemporaries. Yokoo devolved into a bad painter (and worse actor), riding out his early fame on a gilt-edged red carpet. Tanaami has busied himself exploiting the early aesthetic which he departed from decades ago, trotting out inkjet prints on canvas that have been poorly painted-over, offering low-rent Thomas Kinkade-style productions as “originals,” despite the evidence of the paint-by-numbers methodology in play.

This whole trend reifies the time-worn concept of The Designer As Failed Painter — that all designers actually seek fine art careers, but have taken up the workaday practice of graphic design as a way of earning a living — a myth that is given form by those who fail to find fulfillment in a life in the commercial end of the arts.

Perhaps I should look out before I shoot my mouth off like this. I am 40 years old and have only been practicing graphic design professionally for fourteen years (and have chosen to devolve into being a “failed writer” in lieu of being a “failed painter,” apparently). Honestly, I find the whole designer as failed painter theme sordid. Embrace what you do. In the now-decade-old words of cultural writer and agitator W. David Marx, “Design is the new rock ‘n’ roll.” Designers should revel in their activities, not fawn over the activities of the painter in the garret rendering still lives brushstroke-by-brushstroke. Do what you do and OWN it.C

3And this is where I give Hearn crazy props. He was a white man with the gall to marry a black woman fifty years before it was legal in Ohio and then to marry a Japanese woman in Japan in a time when it was fairly unheard of.A

4And turtles! Awazu was fucking apeshit for turtles. He worked so many goddamn turtles into his work that it’s painful. This includes not one, but two known gigantic three-dimensional sculptures of turtles — one adorning his later Kawasaki home and another public sculpture.B

5The Nibankan Building stands as architect Takeyama’s precursor to the Shibuya 109 Building, every foreign otaku’s wet dream/nocturnal emission — the hub of Shibuya fashion which opened in 1979 and whose cylindrical structure is a major stopping point for nearly every one of my Study Abroad students from the U.S. Their fascination with Gyaru/Gothic Lolita/Mori Girl/Time Slipper/Whatever-fashion-flavor-of-the-month-the-international-media-has-quantified-and-categorized-lately makes me sad usually — they are young and they are thinking about the veritable data, not the vessel. I’m aging (rapidly). I dwell on the less important things… like graphic design and architecture instead of sock glue.

6This bit of information speaks to me, somehow — Awazu was consistently dedicated to experimentation and visual research and chose to seal his progress in the most permanent way possible, as well as a method that is highly irritant to general human existence due to its toxicity. There is something devoutly poetic about this.

7Toppan is the Disney® of Japanese printing conglomerates. To date, my interview to pick up a paltry freelance project for the Toppan Printing Corporation stands as the single biggest epic fail of my career to date. (And that’s saying something — I have had my fair share of fuck-ups… trust me).

8This, too, is somehow poetic. No matter how hard the PR spin (or lack thereof), one cannot evade mortality.

ALittle-known fact: Hearn also had a bum eye due to getting punched in the face on a high school playground, and never allowed anyone to photograph him with his bad eye on display. Peep Wikipedia — Hearn is always posing to hide his eye, or has his baby blues closed.

BI am randomly excited about this. When I was 16 years old, I got an awful (but miniscule) full-color tattoo of a cartoon turtle sporting a top hat with a wilting flower on my ankle. 22 years later, I am married to a Japanese woman whose name literally translates into “Turtle Mouth.” She views the tattoo as being foreshadowing (and awkward for her family, as tattoos are taboo in Japan, particularly the rural area where her extended family resides). I just view it as evidence that I am highly prone to making really, really fucking stupid decisions.

CThis being said, it’s disclosure time: I was offered a live painting gig at Tokyo Big Site, Tokyo’s biggest auditorium, for a whiskey trade show a few years ago. The organizer, a friend, confused me writing about graffiti and lettering with being a tried-and-true graffiti writer/street artist, and asked me to paint a giant canvas in front of a crowd of hundreds alongside a real sumi-e ink painter working on a similarly-sized sheet of rice paper.

Due to scant design commissions on my part at that time, and a sizable commission for pictorially synthesizing the essence of a thirty-year-old single malt whiskey which was going to be dutifully poured down my throat on canvas during the painting process, I gratefully took up the task at hand. What resulted was the murkiest painting of deconstructed pop cartoon characters to ever grace an auditorium stage. And a mammoth hangover. A painter I am not. And now, a few years later, I consistently have to insist that I am decidedly not a painter to the folks I happen across who saw me flinging acrylic paint around onstage that day. Consider yourself warned.

Ian LYNAM
December 11, 2012

Ian Lynam is a graphic designer living in Tokyo and the art director of Neojaponisme. His website is located at ianlynam.com. His new book, Parallel Strokes, on the intersection of graffiti and typography is available now.