Wednesday, July 29, 2009

[東京都 p2] 家 : The Household

by Agraphia

Central to understanding Japanese culture is the problematic idea of 家 "ie": [1] house; residence; dwelling; [2] family; household; [3] lineage; family name. Heavily influenced by Confucian hierarchical and patriarchal code, it is conventionally considered, in the ideal Japanese family, the family itself takes precedence over each individual member. Familial harmony, loyalty, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice is valued above all. Children are expected to be loyal to the family and in return earn the benevolence of their elders, including the deceased ancestors. Not unlike conventional 'family' in other cultures perhaps, but it can be argued, particularly central to Japanese understanding, and taken to extremes in well-known (almost trite) Bushido self-sacrificial ritual like Seppuku or Kamikaze. The philosopher, Watsuji Tetsuro -- who wrote 'Climate and Culture' in 1928, a time when imperial Japan was attempting to redefine itself in reaction to western influence -- has the definitive quote wherein he defines the ideal of the 'Japanese Household':
"The term 'house' (ie) signifies the family as a whole. The latter is represented by the head of the house, but it is the family as a whole that gives the head of the house his authority. It is not the case that the house is brought into existence at the whim of its head. The house is given a substantial and distinctive character by the fact that its unity is understood in historical terms. The family of the present shoulders the burden of this historical house and undertakes a liability for its unity from the past down to the future. Therefore, the good name of the house can make a victim even of the household head. The household member is not merely parent or child, husband or wife. He is also a descendant of his ancestors and an ancestor to those who are to come. The house evinces most starkly the fact that the family as a whole takes precedence over its individual members.

Through every age, Japanese have striven to eradicate selfishness within the family and to realize fully the fusion of self and other. But even though this affection is calm, it is full of passion. The calmness of affection is not a mere fusion of emotions sunk in the depths of gloom. It is achieved only at the cost of purging and purifying powerful emotions. In spite of its outward calm, the force that is directed toward unreserved unity within the family is essentially very intense. The sacrifice of the self does not stop short at the needs of convenience but is carried through to its extreme limits.

The house as a whole is always of greater importance than the individual, so the latter throws away his life with the utmost selflessness. The most striking feature of Japanese history is this readiness to stake one's life for the sake of a parent or a child, or to cast away one's life for the house. The calm of family affection contains within it the sacrifice of self-centeredness."
-- Watsuji Tetsuro 'The Family as an Ethical System'
_ _ _
Uchi 内 / Soto 外

Another key construct is the distinction between in-groups (uchi, 内, "inside", self) and out-groups (soto, 外, "outside", other) in social behavior, thought and language. The in-group is humbled, and the out-group honored, not only with polite language, but social action and custom, like giving and receiving. Uchi-Soto relationships are not static, but contextual or situationally dependent, like circles that overlap and change in degree according to circumstance. There are interiors with interiors within exteriors. Uchi is that which is enclosed, accessible, familiar, cosmos, cleanliness, security; Soto is other, inaccessible, unfamiliar, chaos, uncleanliness, fear. Again, while similar social constructs exist in other cultures, many argue the Uchi-Soto binary is particularly central in the Japanese constitution of self (a self which is irreducibly social and constituted through social relationship), society, alterity, and ethnic identity. Such thinking is manifested positively in values like harmony, cooperation and group-cohesion, and sometimes negatively, such as a preoccupation with "Us/Them" oppositions, which may result in alienation, depreciation, or persecution of 'the other'. Again, while recognizing the uchi-soto distinction, and the constitution of a self only in relation to a unique social organization, one must be careful not to perpetuate the myth, for example, of the inability of the Japanese individual to 'find themselves' outside the established hegemony.

Another closely related construct is Honne (本音), one's inner feelings and desires, which may be quite contrary to Tatemae (建前), "facade", one's outer behaviour shaped by position and social obligation (giri 義理). Of course, this is no different from any other culture, other than the fact Japan is famous for its exaggeration, and principle to the Nihonjinron canon.
"Honne and tatemae are arguably a cultural necessity resulting from a large number of people living in a comparatively small island nation. Even with modern farming techniques, Japan today domestically produces only 39% of the food needed to feed its people so, before the modern era, close-knit co-operation and the avoidance of conflict were of vital importance in everyday life. For this reason, the Japanese tend to go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially within the context of large groups.

The conflict between honne and giri (social obligations) is one of the main topics of Japanese drama throughout the ages. Stereotypically, the protagonist would have to choose between carrying out his obligations to his family or feudal lord or pursuing a forbidden love affair. In the end, death would be the only way out of the dilemma."
-- Wikipedia : Honne and Tatemae
Finally, tantamount to navigating the threshold of Uchi-Soto / Honne-Tatemae is the practice of wrapping (風呂敷 "furoshiki"). Everything in Japan is wrapped: bento in cloth, money in decorated envelopes, language in politeness, people in kimono, houses in fences, rooms in partitions, shrines in rope, gaijin in eikaiwa, cookies in cellophane... Wrapping, the decoration of appearances, completes the object, which is naked or dirty without it. There exist very stylized customs about the proper appliance and removal of wrapping, suggesting the ritualization of crossing Uchi-Soto boundaries. Wrapping may serve to hide, protect or arouse anticipation of its contents, communicating a beautiful caution, some advice to take care, that an exchange or transition is taking place between inside and out, that in its centripetal passage, may pleasantly surprise or violently shock its recipient.

"To wield power within a particular construction, one needs to know how to penetrate the various layers of wrapping."
-- 'Wrapping Culture' by Joy Hendry

"In the study of Japanese society and culture, the wrapping itself, or the form in which something is wrapped, very often takes on greater outward significance than the content thereof ... 'Wrapping', in short, is no more than 'rapping', whereby the Japanese indulge in 'national mythmaking', creating and defining their concept of what it means to be 'Japanese'."
-- Unwrapping Japan

"In every gesture of daily life, in the style of conversation, in the proper form of giving a present, the main concern, it seems, is how to wrap up things, ideas, feelings. Wherever Japanese life is not governed by this law of laws behavior it is in constant danger of becoming arbitrary and uncouth, crude and repulsive. It is as if the Japanese, not content with living in a mountainous archipelago all too often visited by mists and clouds and rainstorms, had attempted, from the very beginnings of their civilization, to reproduce in their social and cultural life an intensified image of their natural surroundings -- an interior scenery veiled in vapor, divided into small compartments by mountain ranges, bays and seas. Wherever they go they make a network of walls and fences behind which to retire: unwritten rules, ceremonies and taboos."
-- Mirror, Sword and Jewel By Kurt Singer

_ _ _

Read in this context, the typical Edo period house itself illustrates these binary relations, layers within layers, exteriors within interiors. Fluid, intimate, flexible interiors, with paper thin walls permeated according to situation, open to the outside, drawing the natural background in, and turning the inside out. Of course, functional needs and historical practice are primary in shaping architecture, but at the same time, space shapes the minds and social relations of those within it, and those within it, shape the space. Both functional and aesthetic, some of the key components of the traditional Japanese house include:

Fence (垣):
Usually woven from local bamboo grass, blending in with natural surroundings to provide a soft, natural, unimposing boundary between the 家 and the outside, the private and the public.

Genkan (玄関):

The Entryway. Combination of a porch and a doormat for the removal of shoes before entering the main part of the house. Genkan are often recessed into the floor, to contain any dirt that is tracked in from the outside, like a mud room.
"Uchi and soto are associated with the clean inside of the house, and the dirty outside world. Almost every house in Japan has an entrance hall, where shoes, polluted with outside dirt, are removed. Outside is regarded as dirty because that is where germs, danger and fear are thought to be located; this contrasts with the security provided at home ... The concept of cleanliness seems to be an important aspect of Japanese social relations (with politicians, for instance, often wearing white gloves during campaigning) and many Japanese advertisements use this myth to convince their public of the cultural power associated with or supporting their product."
-- 'Advertizement as a Cultural Product' Anna Kalinowska
The Floor (牀):
Often built on wooden stilts or stone seats to raise the house off the damp ground and allow dry air to pass underneath. From the outside the floor appears to float several feet above ground. Covered with tatami, the floor behaves like a large piece of furniture to be sat upon. The Tatami, used as a unit of measurement loosely based on the proportion of a person, determines the overall size of the house and its quarters.

Shoji (障子) & Fusuma (襖):
Sliding and folding partitions made of light wood and paper permeable by light and air, or painted with nature scenes, that can act as doors, walls, windows or gates. The outer partitions of the house can be fully opened to the outside, merging foreground and background, house and landscape, inside and outside. Inside, they provide temporary boundaries that transform interior space according to the rhythm of everyday life. Furniture is minimal and portable, low tables and cushions, easily arranged in space according to necessity, be it eating, sleeping, or receiving guests, and easily hidden and stored. Therefore, each room doesn't necessarily have a designated function, but can transform according to the moment.

Zashiki (座敷):
The main guest room, where Soto meets Uchi. Center space, most decorated and highly ritualized by social custom, like seating arrangement, and characterized by the tokonoma (床の間) 'enclave', often holding a scroll depicting the current season, suggesting that at the center of the 家 'household' turn the cycles of nature, that the ethical code itself is perfectly natural.
"Once everyone is assembled, the host will ask people to move into the main guest room (zashiki), where low tables have been laid out in an inverted U-shape. The zashiki in fact often comprises two rooms, separated by sliding screens which can be removed when many visitors are present ... the tokonoma is considered to be the most important part of the whole building and so only the most important people are placed with their backs to it along the top row of tables. In the event of casual visiting, a guest will always be placed with his back to the tokonoma, while the host will sit opposite him in an inferior position."
-- Joy Hendry 'Interpreting Japanese Society'
Ofuro (お風呂):
The bath. Shared by each member of the family (who washes before entering) to conserve on water and fuel. Often open to a scenic view of the garden -- a bathing ritual.

Engawa (縁側):
The Engawa holds special significance as an intermediary threshold of communication, neither inside or out, between the house and garden, a kind of porch, protected by the extended roof, providing a place to sit to enjoy the weather and nature outside. It is a place where public and private merge, where one can invite neighbors passing by to sit and communicate without host and guest offending each other or impinging on privacy.

Constructed from a wooden post and beam frame, with wedges and pegs instead of nails that would just rust in the humidity, the house can be dismantled and repaired easily without damage. A pliant, flexible structure that allows movement in wind and earthquakes, but very susceptible to fire.

Machiya (町屋)

A more urban version was the traditional wooden shop / townhouse for merchants and craftsmen that lined the streets of Edo. The typical machiya was a long wooden structure one to three stories high. The face of the building, close against the street, featured wooden lattices, kōshi (格子), stylized according to the type of retail space, mise no ma (店の間), held within, and behind that was the living space, kyoshitsubu (居室部), stretching deep into the city block.
_ _ _

Watsuji elaborates on how the space is one of 'mutual trust' and 'selfless openness':
"The house as a structure of human relations is reflected in the layout of the house as a building. Above all, the physical house exhibits an internal fusion that admits of no discrimination. No room is set off from another by lock and key; in other words, there is no distinction between the individual rooms. Even if there is a partitioning by shoji (sliding doors) or fusuma (screens), this is a division within the unity of mutual trust and not the sign of a desire for separation. The close and undiscriminating unity of the house does permit partitioning by shoji or fusuma, but the very fact of the need for partition is an indication of the passion it contains. Partitions indicate the existence of antagonisms within the house, yet their removal is in itself a show of a completely unbarriered and selfless openness."
-- Watsuji Tetsuro 'The Family as an Ethical System'

And yet another myth ...
"To the casual observer, Japanese domestic life, in its waking and sleeping hours alike, seems devoid of privacy. The ordinary Japanese house affords little freedom from prying looks and unsolicited participation in practically all details of household routine, especially in the summer, when the 'walls' become little more than a system of slender poles and frames, marking off, rather than shutting off, the interior of the house from its surroundings. The communal style of public baths seems carried to extremes incredible to the Western traveler. Intimate details of personal life are freely asked and talked about. No limits of any kind appear to inhibit the reporter's curiosity and the policeman's zeal.

What fails to be observed by most foreign visitors is the unseen screen behind which the Japanese withdraws whenever he chooses, skilfully parrying all those inquisitive looks and awkward questions which catch the foreigner defenceless. The Japanese knows how to draw around himself a wall of inscrutability and silence which allows him to live the life he likes best, shy, reserved, self-centered. The Japanese language is admirably equipped for such a style of life.Rich in ambiguities, elusive in terms, indefinite constructions, it is a tool more for withholding and eluding than for expressing and stating."
--'Mirror, Sword and Jewel' By Kurt Singer

While ideally a space of calm affection, intimacy, and mutual respect, one needn't forget the possible negative aspects of the 家 'household', such as patriarchal abuse, gender inequality, and detached, instrumental relations between family members. In the early twentieth century, families were legally required to conform to the household system, with authority and responsibility for all members under the household head. Usually, the eldest son was the sole inheritor, younger sons were expected to establish their own households and daughters were married out.
"Women could not legally own or control property or select spouses. The ie system thus artificially restricted the development of individualism, individual rights, women's rights, and the nuclearization of the family. It formalized patriarchy and emphasized lineal and instrumental, rather than conjugal and emotional ties, within the family."
-- Wikipedia: Japanese Family

According to conventional wisdom, the Japanese myth, as the post-and-beam of the social, the ethics of 家 'household' reaches beyond the closed family unit to community, company and country. It is the primary model of group behaviour, Watsuji argues, structuring everything from family and neighbourhoods, to politics, economics, and the national identity of Japan as a whole.
"The Japanese, it was said, are one great family that regards the imperial house as the home of its deity. The people as a whole are nothing but one great and unified house, all stemming from an identical ancestor. Thus, the entire state is 'the house within the household', and the fence that surrounds the latter is broadened conceptually to become the boundaries of the state. Within the borders of the state as a whole, there should be the same unreserved and inseparable union that is achieved within the house."
-- Watsuji Tetsuro 'The Family as an Ethical System'

Daikazoku seido (大家族制度) "Extended Family System"

In modern life, though times may be changing, for the average Japanese salaryman, in many ways the company takes over the traditional role of the ie, with a kind of benevolent-parent / loyal-child relationship among superiors and subordinates. Companies expect unquestioned loyalty, self-sacrifice, and excessive amounts of 'service overtime' (unpaid) from workers, often at the expense of the their families. In return, the company offers job security, life-time employment, and general support for the individual and their family. Once you are within the company (family), 正社員/社員 (seishain/shain, ie fully registered employee with all benefits), foraml hierarchy is not so prevalent, with each member sharing roles and equal salary. Faced with economic recession, protectionism and globalization in general, the Uchi-Soto binary is antagonized further, sometimes fostering rivalry, fear and contempt, Japan Inc. vs the world.

While the everyday lived experience of the average Japanese family may be quite removed from the conventional household ideal, there is clearly a more rigid adherence to 'traditional family values' than that of most of my generation in North America (at least, the more liberal parts). Having a far more fluid notion of what a normal, healthy 'family' can mean, I've been stunned on occasion by the strong, immediate negative reaction of Japanese people to issues like divorce or mixed marriage. At the same time, one should take care not to impose western assumptions onto the Japanese household, where its members, such as stay-at-home mothers, may be perfectly comfortable in, and enabled by, their role and the meaningful relationships they have in maintaining the continuity of the home.

[東京都 p1] : The Floating City

by Agraphia

I'm currently working on a series of blog posts about the city of Tokyo -- the nature of the elusive beast as it appears to me, through its people, art and architecture -- as a way of coming to terms with a place I deeply love and admire, but also fear and hate, after having lived here for too long.

Writing about Japan is difficult. As it is often said, it is the land of contradiction, a country that is "almost as unique as its people like to think". Having lived in Japan for seven years -- several of which were spent deep in the countryside, the rest in the city -- I tend to feel at home in Tokyo, and easily tricked into thinking I have the perspective of an insider (Uchi 内), when in fact, as a foreigner -- and quite honestly, only an enthusiastic dabbler in the language -- I am in a way, forever outside looking in (Soto 外). But this perspective is equally relevant. I may not be Japanese, but I live in Tokyo, and Tokyo in many ways, despite its reputation as an amorphous, homogeneous blob, is a heterogeneous assemblage of migrants.

When thinking or writing about Japan, Nihonjinron (日本人論), I've tried to explore multiple perspectives, often with each holding equal weight. While trying to avoid the reduction of everything Japanese to Western perspective, stereotype, or sweeping generalizations about what is in fact a very diverse, heterogeneous culture, I equally distrust Nipponophilia, or the romanticising of eastern thought as fundamentally different from the Judeo-Christian tradition, an ideal model for alternative ways of thinking, or the magical solvent to cure the cultural ills of a degenerative West -- be it a return to conventional, natural, sage-like wisdom, or in exemplifying a radical, postmodernist future.

But I certainly do think we can learn a lot from each other.

Perhaps most importantly, I think special attention needs to be paid to the problem of perpetuating the myths of Japanese identity, generated not only from within the culture, but from the Nihonjinron without.

Some typical issues are summarized in this Wikipedia article:
* Uniqueness: Japan, its people, culture, ways of thinking, social behaviour, language, etc., are unique.

* This uniqueness of the Japanese is rooted in the distinctive characteristics of the Japanese race or ethnos.

* Ahistorical essentialism: The peculiarities of the Japanese remain unaltered essentially throughout history, and indeed, it is often asserted, are derived from a prehistorical world.

* Homogeneity: The Japanese are homogeneous as a people, race, or ethnic community.

* Language: The Japanese language contains words and phrases that cannot be adequately translated into other languages, demonstrating the uniqueness of the Japanese race.
- - -
* (1) The Japanese race is a unique isolate, having no known affinities with any other race. In some versions, the race is understood as directly descended from a distinct branch of primates.[16]

* (2) This isolation is due to the peculiar circumstances of living in an island country (島国, shimaguni?) cut off from the promiscuous cross-currents of continental history, with its endless miscegenation of tribes and cultures. The island country in turn enjoys a sui generis climate (風土, fūdo?) whose peculiar rhythms, the putative fact for example that Japan alone has four distinct seasons (四季, shiki?), colour Japanese thinking and behavior. Thus, human nature in Japan is, peculiarly, an extension of nature itself.[17]

* (3) The Japanese language has thus a unique grammatical structure and native lexical corpus whose idiosyncratic syntax and connotations condition the Japanese to think in peculiar patterns unparalleled in other human languages. The Japanese language is also uniquely vague.[18] Foreigners who speak it fluently therefore, may be correct in their usage, but the thinking behind it remains inalienably soaked in the alien framework of their original language's thought patterns. This is the Japanese version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which grammar determines world-view.[19]

* (4) Japanese psychology, influenced by the language, is defined by a particular cast of dependency wishes or desires (甘え, amae?) that conduce to a unique form of 'human relationship' (人間関係, ningen kankei?), in which clearly defined boundaries between self and other are ambiguous or fluid, leading to a psychomental and social ideal of the fusion of ego and alter (自他合一, jiga gōitsu?).[20]

* (5) Japanese social structures consistently remould human associations in terms of an archaic family or household model (家, ie?) characterized by vertical relations (縦社会, tate-shakai?), clan (氏, uji?), and (foster-) parent-child patterns (親分・子分, oyabun, kobun?). As a result, the individual (個人, kojin?) cannot properly exist, since groupism (集団主義, shūdan-shugi?) will always prevail.[21]
I said myths. . . some would argue these ideas are fact not fiction. However, in the sense of myth as metanarrative, as the stories we tell each other that shape society, they are myths that, on the one hand, serve to support and affirm cultural identity, and on the other hand, confine and limit it.

I think it's safe to say the Japanese don't know what 'Japanese' is, if there is such a thing. Japan has a traumatic history. As William Gibson so aptly puts it, Japan was 'drop-kicked' into postmodernity, and in his own private Tokyo is fairing quite comfortably. "They don't really worry," he says "not like we do". Yes, not like we do... but, oh, they worry! Not so much about their youth hanging out in the streets in maid and nurse costume, dreaming in public -- although elders may grumble, it is just wrapping (風呂敷 "furoshiki") after all, and the girls hidden beneath the ephemeral masks of modern fashion trends are still, in essence, Japanese. As masters of appearance -- often hiding, in the name of harmony, the conflicting identities and power structures beneath -- they aren't anxious about such surfaces. But they worry deeply about the depth of social relations, about the uncertainty of the outside, the insecurity of an unknown future. They distrust and project fears onto the other (and I can't blame them, considering how poorly some foreigners behave.) They worry about strangers on the train. They worry about foreign viruses. They obsess over cleanliness and secrecy. They worry...

I'm not attacking Japan -- this wretched list of criticisms may be longer were it of my home country! But, I think one has to realize, in some ways, Japan may be profoundly insecure, poised between ancient Asian histories and heavy Western influence, wracked by war and natural disaster. I agree with Gibson, but at the same time, can't help but read the signs of a deep cultural identity crisis. Japan is an ancient culture, that while swimming the headstreams of the future, still admirably employs its ancient past. But scratch deep enough beneath the surface, intoxicated by the promise of an elusive origin, and it may seem like all one discovers is superficial appearance and simulation; layers of American paint on Chinese wallpaper. Is even sushi Chinese?!. Some will argue it is precisely this ability to adapt and assimilate the best of other cultures that makes Japan what it is. So why are we so preoccupied with its uniqueness? Is it overcompensation for a fundamental lack of it?

Things are never quite so simple. What is the origin of any culture or city? Tokyo is a collage of contradictory forces, giving expression to that which is uniquely Japanese, or a unique expression of that which is profoundly human. A city is the physical expression of the very being of a society, and as I have wandered -- sometimes oriented, sometimes lost -- about the major stations and back alleys of this sprawling, labyrinthian metropolis, I've been navigating the identity crisis, these very contradictions and exaggerations in all their corporeal beauty and ugliness, climbing and falling through a culture's past and future, as it both fights and yields to expansion and collapse, the pulse of its existence. A very human city, shaped by disaster, renewal, trauma and vitality.

In the end, as I prepare to leave, I withdraw with little more rational understanding of its mysterious mechanisms, but through lived experience, understand all to well, down to the very bone, my admiration of its stamina, my repulsion towards its superficiality and hyper-consumerism, its blind obsession with material wealth and social status, the boredom of its prosaic work ethic and routine, and the sudden vertigo of its undeniable, breath-taking exhilaration.

Tokyo: Empire of signs? A City without Center? Floating Signifier?
A game played by the Four Fearful Ones.

An Edo period woodblock print describing a game played by the Four Fearful Ones: earthquake (catfish), thunder (a devil with horns), fire (with fiery hair) and a father still having prestige.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Humor Melancholicus

Henry Purcell composed his masque "The Fairy-Queen" in 1692, three years before his death at age 34, as an adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". The score was lost and not rediscovered until 1901. "The Plaint" (O, let me Weep!) is the well-known aria sang by Juno in Act V. It was performed live today in Ueno, Tokyo by the "Lusthoffers" ensemble.
"The humor melancholicus, when it takes fire and glows, generates the frenzy (furor) which leads us to wisdom and revelation, especially when it is combined with a heavenly influence, above all with that of Saturn... Moreoever, this humor melancholicus has such power that they say it attracts certain demons into our bodies, through whose presence and activity men fall into ecstasies and pronounce many wonderful things..."
-- Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa
De Occulta Philosophia
Saturn and Melancholy (Nelson, 1964)
This quote reminds me that our interpretation of something even as primal and basic as human emotion is socially constructed. I find Purcell's humor melancholis -- although admittedly pretty heavy for what was a sunny Sunday afternoon -- some refreshing, passionate depth in contrast to that which I'm sometimes forced to consider a contemporary, almost pathological, obsession with superficial 'positivity' (... yes, I've worked in the service industry for far too long!)
"Melancholy, which was during the immediate past in Christian Europe considered to be a temperament of sad, poor and unsuccessful individuals, assumed a completely different significance in the sixteenth century. The increasing interest in Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystical philosophy, as well as a renewed awareness of texts such as the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise called Problemata physica, resulted in a view of melancholy as the humor of great men."
-- Goldberg, pg65 issue #45

"The history of melancholia is that of an innately human experience of suffering becoming the object of a cultural construct. As a mood or emotion, the experience of being melancholy or depressed is at the very heart of being human: feeling down or blue or unhappy, being dispirited, discouraged, disappointed, dejected, despondent, melancholy, depressed, or despairing many aspects of such affective experiences are within the normal range. Everyone suffers from this kind of metaphorical melancholia, as Robert Burton said, because "Melancholy in this sense is the character of mortality" (The Anatomy of Melancholy, I.I.I.5.), that is, a figure of the human condition."
-- Francis Zimmermann 'The History of Melancholy'

This act was followed by the more lively 'Cathelina Early Music Ensemble' (カテリーナ古楽合奏団). Well-known for their collection of rare, period instruments, they have brought early music to a popular audience in Japan. It was an excellent performance!

Robahouse >>

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Jeff Soto

I've been a fan of Jeff Soto for some time. Good to finally see an interview with him! Nice he comes across as such a down-to-earth guy. His "be cool, stay in school" and "get down to business" message is a good one, but backed by that super corny inspirational music? ...damn! I can't help but feel some important mystique has been lost.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Gummy Bear Horror

Interview with Charlie Immer:
Q) How would you describe your work?
A) Like candy coated extreme violence with a dash of the circus. Like it looks tasty but you hesitate to lick it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Teicoku Syounen (Imperial Boy)

I m p e r i a l B o y

full size
another full size

Lillyputian Ecopolis

...for climate refugees. Just scary!

"According to the less alarming forecasts of the GIEC (Intergovernmental group on the evolution of the climate), the ocean level should rise from 20 to 90 cm during the 21st Century with a status quo by 50 cm (versus 10 cm in the 20th Century). The international scientific scene assets that a temperature elevation of 1°C will lead to a water rising of 1 meter ...

New biotechnological prototype of ecologic resilience dedicated to the nomadism and the urban ecology in the sea, Lilypad travels on the water line of the oceans, from the equator to the poles following the marine streams warm ascending of the Gulf Stream or cold descending of the Labrador.

It is a true amphibian half aquatic and half terrestrial city, able to accommodate 50,000 inhabitants and inviting the biodiversity to develop its fauna and flora around a central lagoon of soft water collecting and purifying the rain waters. This artificial lagoon is entirely immersed ballasting thus the city. It enables to live in the heart of the subaquatic depths. The multifunctional programming is based on three marinas and three mountains dedicated respectively to the work, the shops and the entertainments. The whole set is covered by a stratum of planted housing in suspended gardens and crossed by a network of streets and alleyways with organic outline. The goal is to create a harmonious coexistence of the couple Human / Nature and to explore new modes of living the sea by building with fluidity collective spaces in proximity, overwhelming spaces of social inclusion suitable to the meeting of all the inhabitants."
-- Vincent Callebaut

Saturday, July 18, 2009

ANGST/itecture [7] : Hakka vs Panopticon

Hakka vs. Panopticon. Sounds like a bad Transformers duel...

Last Year's Man has written a great response, The Human Desire for Order, to my previous post on Hak Nam, where he reminds us not to romanticize the uninhibited, unorganized growth of anarchic space (Republican free market ideology?), and remember order is natural, safe, and makes creativity possible (Democratic government intervention?). He uses the idea of Chinese Hakka architecture as an example of good space. Beautiful.

"Urbanus design process began with the simple question of how to adapt this old housing type to a radical new reality, the scale and pace of China’s urbanization. Fifty years ago China was mostly a country of rural villages. Today more than 150 of its cities have a population of a million or more — compared with just nine in the United States — and the speed of urbanization is only likely to accelerate.

One result has been a nagging housing crisis as migrants in desperate need of work pour into booming cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Because the government stopped building large-scale public housing a decade ago, most end up in squalid neighborhoods of densely packed towers that were built by local developers with little oversight. Often the country's new rich live sealed off in glittering high-rises right next door, seemingly indifferent to the poverty around them.

Inserted into this dystopian universe of colorless skyscrapers, the primal drumlike form of Urbanus's tulous will have a powerful symbolic presence. They suggest fortifications against a contemporary marauder: the speculators who have so often forced the poor out of urban neighborhoods to make way for new development ...

The apartments themselves recall Le Corbusier’s notion of “minimal” architecture, compact, super-efficient spaces that he modeled after monks’ cells. The smaller units in the tulou are essentially nothing more than dormitory rooms that serve the building’s service staff. The larger apartments, designed for groups of migrant workers or small families, have small living areas with bathrooms neatly tucked behind the kitchens ...

A communal spirit is fostered by rings of balconies surrounding the central court and bridges linking terraces and gardens on the complex’s upper levels. Like in some earlier Communist-era housing projects, such areas are intended to lure people out of their apartments and to encourage interaction. They also convey a generous sense of space even as the design maximizes efficiency."
-- Reinventing Hakka Tulou for Modern Living

Not to be suspicious of everything 'made in China', but unfortunately, with my dystopian bent, the fist thing that came to my mind was Bentham / Foucault's Panopticon:

"The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the "sentiment of an invisible omniscience." Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example ...

... the design was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern "disciplinary" societies and its pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, the school, the hospital and the factory have evolved through history to resemble Bentham's Panopticon."
-- Wikipedia : Panopticon

An interesting contrast. I suppose, in any densely packed urban space, including Hak Nam, one would have to consider the inclination to 'observe' and 'normalize'. It doesn't have to be round. It could be the Yamanote-line in Tokyo! (wait... that's kind of round, but whatever...) I Guess it just depends on what's in the center of that tulou... village hearth of communal spirit, or Big Brother? In the end, tulou does look like a far nicer place to dwell than Hak Nam.

Friday, July 17, 2009

ANGST/itecture [6] : Hak Nam

"Hak Nam, City of Darkness, the old Walled City of Kowloon was finally demolished ten years ago, in 1993, and to the end it retained its seedy magnificence. Rearing up abruptly in the heart of urban Hong Kong, 10, 12 and in some places as many as 14 storeys high, there was no mistaking it: an area 200 metres by 100 metres of solid building, home to some 35,000 people, not the largest, perhaps, but certainly one of the densest urban slums in the world. It was also, arguably, the closest thing to a truly self-regulating, self-sufficient, self-determining modern city that has ever been built."

"The Kowloon Walled City was located just outside Hong Kong, China during British rule. A former watchpost to protect the area against pirates, it was occupied by Japan during World War II and subsequently taken over by squatters after Japan’s surrender. Neither Britain nor China wanted responsibility for it, so it became its own lawless city ... Its population flourished for decades, with residents building labyrinthine corridors above the street level, which was clogged with trash. The buildings grew so tall that sunlight couldn’t reach the bottom levels and the entire city had to be illuminated with fluorescent lights. It was a place where brothels, casinos, opium dens, cocaine parlors, food courts serving dog meat and secret factories ran unmolested by authorities. It was finally torn down in 1993 after a mutual decision was made by British and Chinese authorities, who had finally grown wary of the unsanitary, anarchic city and its out-of-control population."
-- Kowloon Walled City

photos from City of Darkness

In Idoru, Gibson maps the walled city into cyberspace as a kind of subversive, anarchic oasis, a rhizomatic 'dead zone', for hackers and criminals outside the influence of law and corporate capital. Gibson describes the unsettling vertigo when his protagonist first experiences the walled city:

"Something at the core of things moved simultaneously in mutually impossible directions. It wasn't even like porting. Software conflict? Faint impression of light through a fluttering of rags. And then the thing before her: building or biomass or cliff face looming there, in countless unplanned strata, nothing about it even or regular. Accreted patchwork of shallow random balconies, thousands of small windows throwing back blank silver rectangles of fog."
-- from 'Idoru' by William Gibson

HAKNAM ... a space for creativity without preconditioned borders.

"Once you step out of the sunlight into the narrow corridors, it's time to protect your nuts guys!"

MAPS: Google Maps of Sci-Fi

BLDG BLOG’s Geoff Manaugh on mapping the fictional onto the real:

"You go to Google Maps one day, because you're planning a trip to Japan or to San Francisco, and you click on "Satellite" view - and then on "William Gibson", a new visualization option. It's brought to you by a partnership between Putnam and Google Maps. So you click on "William Gibson" and a whole informational layer of Gibsonian detail appears. Gibson mentioned this street, and this bridge, and this hotel room - and here it is on a map for you to follow.

Within six months, you can click on "Alfred Hitchcock," "Ray Bradbury," and "H.P. Lovecraft" to see how their films and stories map out. It's the becoming-literary of Google Maps..."
-- Geoff Manaugh

Thursday, July 16, 2009

ANGST/itecture [5] : & the Blasé $$$

"Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence and are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectualist character. These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without. Even though sovereign types of personality, characterized by irrational impulses, are by no means impossible in the city, they are nevertheless, opposed to typical city life. The passionate hatred of men like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis is understandable in these terms. Their natures discovered the value of life alone in the unschematized existence which cannot be defined with precision for all alike. From the same source of this hatred of the metropolis surged their hatred of money economy and of the intellectualism of modern existence.
The same factors which have thus coalesced into the exactness and minute precision of the form of life have coalesced into a structure of the highest impersonality; on the other hand, they have promoted a highly personal subjectivity. There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which has been so unconditionally reserved to the metropolis as has the blasé {14} attitude. The blasé attitude results first from the rapidly changing and closely compressed contrasting stimulations of the nerves. From this, the enhancement of metropolitan intellectuality, also, seems originally to stem. Therefore, stupid people who are not intellectually alive in the first place usually are not exactly blasé. A life in boundless pursuit of pleasure makes one blasé because it agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all. In the same way, through the rapidity and contradictoriness of their changes, more harmless impressions force such violent responses, tearing the nerves so brutally hither and thither that their last reserves of strength are spent; and if one remains in the same milieu they have no time to gather new strength. An incapacity thus emerges to react to new sensations with the appropriate energy. This constitutes that blasé attitude which, in fact, every metropolitan child shows when compared with children of quieter and less changeable milieus.
This physiological source of the metropolitan blasé attitude is joined by another source which flows from the money economy. The essence of the blasé attitude consists in the blunting of discrimination. This does not mean that the objects are not perceived, as is the case with the half-wit, but rather that the meaning and differing values of things, and thereby the things themselves, are experienced as insubstantial. They appear to the blasé person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one object deserves preference over any other. This mood is the faithful subjective reflection of the completely internalized money economy. By being the equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes the most frightful leveler. For money expresses all qualitative differences of things in terms of "how much?" Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability. All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money."
-- Georg Simmel
'The Metropolis and Mental Life'

the entire essay can be read here

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ANGST/itecture [4] : More Tokyo than Tokyo

In the animated film, based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkon Kinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート -- a play on the Japanese words for 'concrete,' 'iron,' and 'muscle,' and suggesting the warring images of steel and concrete amassing against the powers of imagination) the orphans Black and White battle mysterious foreign entrepreneurs with the intention of removing the delinquents and steam rolling their home city Takaramachi (Treasure Town) to replace it with an amusement park (...a kind of Baudrillardian hyper-real?). It is in the hands of the destructive Black to save Takaramachi and the gentle White to save Black from his own darkness.

"This picture [above] shows the image board which everyone referred to when drawing backgrounds. When we got stuck, we went back to the original to find our way out. Only Shinji had absorbed everything of Taiyo Matsumoto’s world and never had to go back to the original once when he started drawing ... We had to think of everything: the distance perspectives of the streets, the positional relationship, where Kuro and Shiro lived, the size and the population of Takaramachi, the overall structure … There are possibilities of dramas in all sorts of places in these streets. Shinji put it all together and made it into this drawing of the town ... Actually, everyone in the team knew exactly where the boys were running around on this map. Also, if the scene was at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we needed to draw them with a light at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, even if they ran zigzag through the streets. Animators need to go into so much detail! Amazing!"
-- Eiko Tanaka

Careful attention to flavour and fine detail in the immaculate backgrounds of the city (in the tradition of Miyazaki Hayao) renders "Treasure Town" more Tokyo than Tokyo...

"I'm not sure if it's due to the printing materials or the inks they were using, but there's a very peculiar flavor to the graphic design of the '50s and '60s in Japan, and we thought that would be a nice way of evoking this era that's gone by or just lives on only in this one little town ... [Is Treasure Town meant to be a future version of Tokyo? It seems to have some aspects of the present-day city] ... If anything, I didn't want it to seem like a recreation of a real city. I wanted it to feel like some kind of parallel universe, like it's got futuristic elements, some sort of references to Tokyo and Osaka, but also other big Asian cities, Hong Kong certainly and Jakarta. I wanted it to certainly seem like an organic place, but something where no one's been to quite that place."
--Michael Arias