a masochist in tokyo

Monday, May 29, 2006

thinking through my project has brought me to a couple of philosphical roadblocks. i think i know where i'm going with my message, and i think i have a vessel through which to deliver my message, but i'm a little battered by the thought that i'll have a to distill an enormous collection of thoughts and responses to a couple of pages of booklet (poster?) and a cd of noise. any representation of a culture brings with it a necessary paring of certain details...it creates its own stereotype, regardless of one's attempt at honest representation. i tried to sidestep the issue by making it less extroverted and more introverted, a single person's experience focused in on the difficulties inherent in a language difference. still, i found my project to be scattered. i don't know where i came to the conclusion, but i find myself leaning toward the idea of letting the outsider be aware of what they have to face. coming from a position of relative uncertainty about everything i see, the idea of letting someone in my position know what they are going to have to deal with is of some interest to me. at present i see my project falling under the heading of "how to confuse an american." in this way i have a proper vehicle to lay out certain expected elements and let the viewer understand what being a a gaijin in japan really means for you. language, culture and social absurdity are the order of the day, and a step by step guide to this culture shock could be an interesting thing to witness. i don't necessarily see it diverging too much in the media component from what i had planned, a noise collage is a nice mental prep for being totally lost within the cacophony that is tokyo and its many prefectures. understand that you are going to be overwhelmed every day. let it sink in. curse a lot. then get over it.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

if we are to understand tokyo as the flaming center of japan's look to the west, then the area of kyoto we explored represents nothing less than the polar opposite of that, an insular community that feeds on itself for its culture and heritage. most of kyoto is not like what we experienced...but what we did see and feel was "old japan." this is in stark contrast to the kinetic energy of japan's center of industry, and purely represents the strange dichotomy that exists throughout the whole of japan. the temples and valleys and simple but bold architecture calmed me in ways that i never would have thought i would experience in japan given where i've spent the bulk of my trip. where tokyo is all push and pull, the ryokan and the temples visited in kyoto and nara represented stillness and acceptance. the most elaborate of structures exuded a sense of peace, along with a silence uncharacteristic of the bustling metropolis. and yet, like elsewhere in japan, there is a strange sense that everything you see is guided by the hand of man...that here, there is no accident, no unshaped beauty. everything, even the most peaceful and earthy elements have been manipulated to create what ritchie refered to as the japanese concept of nature. for the japanese, he says, nature is not by chance but by choice, and through manipulation reaches its potential. i saw seemingly natural elements throughout the temple areas and gardens, trees, rock formations, and the like. however, the trees were too perfect, creating (for a western eye) unnatural geometric shapes, becoming architecture of a sort to support and enhance the main structure they surround. the rocks were shaped to represent mountain formations and to facilitate eye movement around a carefully created stream. even the trees in the distance on the mountain had the odd peculiarity of not having their leaves start until very high on the trunk...had those at one point been pruned and formed into those shapes? for someone like me, it became impossible to tell what had been enhanced and what had been left alone...i just began to assume at one point or another everything in that place had been touched by man. in that context, that which is intended to calm and enlighten in the japanese culture isn't a nature that exists of its own volition...those are only elements. the work and hardship that goes into creating a peaceful garden is a metaphor for the whole of japan, i think. even moments of serenity are carefully calculated and controlled.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


i can understand putting restraints on a project as broad as that of "neighborhood narratives." giving us certain boundaries results in something managable from both sides, the student and the teacher. with 6 weeks to complete a project, concept to execution, a framework allows for a starting point. and with as broad as this project seems like it will be, that framework may be all we have as a nesting ground for our concept. making minato-ku our playground makes logical sense.

so why is it that the first thing that comes to mind for my project is something best handled in jiyugaoka??

minato-ku encompasses a wide range of areas, from the space surrounding temple to roppongi and everything in between. what makes those areas different from jiyugaoka is in their inherent urbanization. what i want to capture in my project at this stage is the rush of being overwhelmed, being inundated with images and markings foreign to my mind, the feeling of having indecipherable branding and language shoveled into my head in such a densely populated space. minato-ku has that at points, but the overall feeling (especially in roppongi) is of a posh and post-modern take on new york. very hip, but very sterile as well. shibuya opens up a bit, its sheer density adding a distinctive and surreal feel to an otherwise very urban environment. jiyugaoka was my first impression of tokyo, and i would argue it remains yet my most vivid, and not even because of my proximity to it. cars are almost an afterthought here. it exists as a hyperactive network of side streets and alleyways, with the train station as the hub, within which it seems to create its own kind of perpetual motion. not like shibuya's mass hysteria, mind you, but rather more of an ocean wave of people on foot or bike, existing as one and the same with the rest of tokyo but having a distinctive color. where my project concept emerged was through bearing witness to the barrage of colors and shapes in the first few days of being here, and finding myself getting winded. i wanted to capture the moment i stopped being in awe of this place as a livable construct and began to feel oppressed/liberated by it.

at first, i found no equivalent experience in minato-ku. no oversaturation of language, fewer instances of sheer visual vomit, good, bad and indifferent. what i began to realize was that my experiences were being had on a smaller scale, that it wasn't the bigger picture of being in japan that was causing this feeling in me, but the day to day mishaps and revelations. for example, operating a cooking device i'd be able to use without incedent in the states and finding myself unable to break the language barrier. so i thought about what happens when one transposes their experience with something they might recognize in from home with the equivalent thing here, how it becomes more oppressive despite the built in familiarity. i chose my block in minato-ku for its corner shops and convenience stores, rudamentary parts of city life, but by definition more difficult to navigate and slightly more frightening from the outside looking in. i'm noticing bad design everywhere here because i can't read the information, a factor that colors its recognition in the states. in that respect, the language barrier is liberating, as i become unconcerned with message and totally focused on form. as i experiment with different means of showing this in my project, i've toyed with the idea of creating an appropriately cacophonous sound collage for my media component, letting the messages and marketing and underlying cultural meme overlap and create something (for lack of a better term) relentless.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

what i've felt so far in reading a lateral view is a sense of detachment and observation, a certain reverence for the subject matter. richie obviously loves japan for a number of reasons, perhaps foremost among them his notion of japan bringing old world asian sensibility into an increasingly westernized template of society. he talks about their notion of time and structure, the idea that nature isn't natural until it has been fashioned by the hand of man, alluding to a symbiotic relationship that renders unaffected natural things (man included) as "invisible." i found his ideas interesting, certainly. and i do think that there is a kernel of truth in the idea that this is a people and society that, while increasingly borrowing culture from the west, dilutes and changes it by adding to it built in ideology from a distant past (not to mention a control dictated by the shades of a former police state). however, i think a lot of what he mentions here is a bit too romantic for its own good. he may be speaking candidly about the whole of japan, but it is a little more difficult for me to sit in downtown shibuya and see much of the old world (if i can sit at all...much of downtown tokyo is perpetual motion). plus there is a marked difference between the vestiges of old tokyo and the new generation that is poised to inheret the city. the japanese men in suits that form the landscape of the train system may indeed think of themselves as natural and conforming to their environment, but the youth of the city is different. they speak on the trains, they party, they dress in fashion ranging from americanized to interstellar. one gets a real sense from observing the kids in harajuku that they have been born into a lessening need for communion with the group and an increasing need for individuality, perhaps a byproduct of international communication tools like the internet giving them a glimpse of what is outside their fair island. ritchie mentions again and again that everything in japan is deliberate and controlled, and thus tranquil as a result. i'm sure some case could be made for these youth choosing designated spots for their counterculture revolution, but regardless of the location, what exists here isn't tranquility, but rather an exhilarating sense of chaos.