Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Design Zen

It's a Tuesday evening and I'm listening for the first time to Massive Attack's remix of David Bowie singing the Nat King Cole classic 'Nature Boy'. It's dark and impressive. My Tokyo apartment is dimly lit by LEDs on standby. Through the window I see the Ebisu Gardens Tower looming on the hill beyond the Meguro River. Packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love Me Avenue. Moments of my life over the last thirty years link up, moments when I first listened to new Bowie songs. I was going round and round the hotel garage. Windows appear and dissolve, framing my headphoned reflection with other views: a frozen lake through a Montreal picture window, 1974. The first time I hear the banshee wail that opens Diamond Dogs. Mist hanging over Drummond Place Gardens, Edinburgh, 1977. My first listen to Low.

I flick the CD back a few tracks. It's Beck and Timbaland covering 'Diamond Dogs'. As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent you asked for the latest party

Japan is more 'Low' than 'Diamond Dogs'. It's more hermetic formalist detachment than simply divine decadence, darling. David Bowie once said that although he loved Japan, he would never live here because it would make him 'too Zen to write'. He'd just go off into some meditation or something, or doze off in 'old Kyoto, sleeping on the matted ground'.

I think, now I'm living in Japan myself, I'm beginning to get an inkling of what he might have meant. It's not so much the siren power of Zen which worries me -- I was never a Buddhist like Bowie -- as the seductive tyranny of another, more recent, secular religion: the worship of Design.

I'm under Japanese influence and my honour's at stake

In Japan, taste has died and gone to heaven. Tokyo is a city trapped under the iron thumb of 'aesthetic correctness'. It's the greatest good fortune, and the greatest misfortune. I'm still trying to decide if it's heaven or hell. This is a nation with a religion whose credo is cred. Let's call it Design Zen.

As a country in which aesthetics have been elevated to the status of religion, Japan resembles 19th century France. The cut-and-paste fashion dandies of Harajuku are the perfect realisation of the ideals of Joris Karl Huysmans or Charles Baudelaire. As a place where honour and elegance collapse into a single quality, where surface and depth are super-flattened, where moral fibre and etiquette, or the inside of a man and his outside, are not differentiated, Japan also resembles late 19th Century Britain, the Yellow Book Britain of Wilde and Beardsley. Like Wilde's Dorian Gray, the average Japanese is honourable so long as he is well-presented. And he is well-presented so long as he is aesthetically correct. Designed from top to toe, styled inside and out. A devotee of the national cult: Design Zen.

Change the Flava

If, like me, you have a tendency to condemn American-style capitalism for its inherent tendency to lower human standards, it's challenging to see familiar western brands in Japan doing different -- and better -- things. Instead of its usual toxic brown syrup, Coca Cola here sells sugar-free green tea in streetside machines. Haagen Dazs also adapts to the Japanese market with a delicious green tea flavour. And HMV, a record store which in London has little interest in doing anything other than selling Destiny's Child CDs, in Tokyo has a section called Avant Pop in which, next to records by Bruce Haack and Dragibus, they've placed an Italian futurist lounge magazine called Il Giaguaro and a book of the literary interviews of San Diego post-post modernist writer Larry McCaffery. I open it and read: 'One of the good things about capitalism is that it's blind to what it sells. The system isn't really the enemy. It's blind, all it wants is to replicate and do more things.'

Win A Cow Free

Donning my best 'hepatitis contact lens' I catch the Ginza line to Saga, Tokyo's nascent art area, to a Tom Friedman opening at the Koyama Gallery. Here, on the Chelsea model, are art spaces in big white converted warehouses, with synchronised openings on Fridays once a month. The magnet is MoTo, the Tokyo Modern Art Museum nearby, and relatively low rents.

But these galleries are not really the essence of Tokyo creativity. That's to be found in the liminal zones where art and commerce intertwine. A little T shirt lab in Shimokitazawa which proclaims 'T Shirts As Media!' The Organic Depot in Kami-Meguro, a cafe gallery under the railway tracks with illustration on the walls, a table of club flyers, west coast jazz and retro lounge chairs. The 8th floor gallery of the Parco department store, where girls take time out from Shibuya shopping sprees to sit on cushions gazing at the camouflage-like graphic designs of Gasbook veteran Geoff McFetridge in an exhibition entitled, not Some Trendy Camo Graphics For Your Momentary Diversion, but A Way Of Life: The Manifestations of Geoff McFetridge. A way of life! Camouflage as lebensphilosophie! Design Zen!

Then there's Win A Cow Free, a shop on the quiet, leafy Naka-Meguro canalside which seems to exist to sell rucksacks, because that's what's ranged in glass cases along the walls. I doubt they sell more than two a week. In fact, the goods are totally upstaged by the presentation. In the fireplace, instead of a real fire, a video simulation flickers, complete with crackling sound effects. Above it there's a video mirror which relays your 'reflection' in real time, by closed circuit, at a slight angle. It's unsettling, and all the more disorientingly impressive for being an installation in a store rather than a gallery.

Please Enjoy Instant Sophisticated Taste!

Up on the fifth floor of an office building in Ebisu I find the Instant Cafe. The wall is covered in posters for an event called I (Heart) Dutronc. They have period anthologies of the work of Boris Vian and design magazines from the year 1970 lying around. Shizu, Chie and I sip Chinese lychee liqueur and 'cider', completely absorbed, totally at home. Things it took me years of solitary struggle to discover and weave into my identity as a 'pop connoisseur' are lying about here casually.

I'm a little shellshocked, to be honest. I'm used to the prevailing culture -- things you find lying around in an English cafe, for instance -- being toxic, because I'm used to living in places dominated by people who care little for my refined values. As an aesthete in Britain I'd expect to have to do a bit more work, to rig in my mind and in my work a kitsch rejig of the gory bad taste that surrounds me in the average British cafe: a tabloid, a copy of the yellow pages, some shoddy 60s lettering on the menu, a badly-designed, poorly-written free local newspaper. I'm ready to do a bit of a Fuel Design job on the toxic clutter, to do a quick Sarah Lucas, a swift Corinne Day; take the toxic symbols and make them into a new style. Hey presto -- poison is palatable!

But here in Tokyo there's no need for the defensive reflex of kitsch. Everything is pre-selected to be pleasing, edifying, beautiful, trendily retro (referencing the currently correct period, bien sur!), unimpeachably cool. There's retro and recontextualisation everywhere, but without irony. The junk is all so sifted already, it's lost its association with the poisonous people who created and consumed it. You lift a stone here and find, instead of the expected creepy crawlies, treasures.

Tokyo is home from home for every Francophile aesthete in the world. There are generally agreed standards of beauty. In New York cafes, next to the poster detailing the Heimlich Manouver, you get a sign saying 'Call this number to see how I did in my last hygiene inspection'. In Tokyo the Design Police have posted notices saying 'Check the label under the Eames chair. If it doesn't say Herman Miller, call this number.' I'm joking, but only just. Good taste is statutory here.

White Castle

Shizu and I see 'Baise Moi' and 'Downtown 81' in Shibuya's Cinema Rise, a classic piece of 80s pomo architecture featuring a sculpted metal curtain flipped faux-casually over a concrete dome. Both films make the West look dirty and decadent. From tidy Tokyo, it really looks like the White Castle is being undermined (and worse, uglified) by casual violence, racial diversity and sexual decadence.

The New York film works here in Japan because it's about people from the filthy streets of early 80s Manhattan escaping brutal conditions through art. Basquiat even redeems himself by adopting a French name! 'Baise Moi', on the other hand, looks atrociously savage. The Paris we see in this film is as far from the France Japan loves, the France of Boris Vian, Gainsbourg and Juliette Greco, as gangsta rap is from avant pop.

At the end of this ludicrous carnival of piggish sex (heavily censored in the Japanese version) and sub-Stone, sub-Tarantino carnage, the Cinema Rise staff guide us to the doors with cheerful, polite cries. The dystopian idea that human life is worthless and mutual human respect meaningless vanishes like a grim fairy tale the moment the lights are raised. Stepping out into the Tokyo streets, you're back in a slightly surreal yet reassuring simulacrum of the humanist France of Eric Rohmer and Jean Cocteau. Zero crime. Zen design. Let's find a nice place to eat!

In Our Hour Of Need, Where Are Chicks On Speed?

Where aesthetic values are ubiquitous, and where the recherche is so easily found, doesn't a need soon arise to rip up the taste templates and start all over again? Down with Dutronc! Down with the graphic design of the 70s! Give me something toxic and horrible that can really get my imagination cranked and rankling again!

Where are the people bringing back pointy shoulders and skinny ties? Where are the Tokyo equivalents of Jeremy Scott and Chicks on Speed? Is the religiose worship of 'good design' holding them back? Are they, perhaps, not necessary here? In a town like Tokyo, so dominated by a concensus of enlightened good taste emblematised by obscurely saintly figures like Charles Eames or Gershon Kingsley, what hope is there for anything oppositional?

Taking The Waters

Shibuya kei recontextualisation is dilettante, a voluntary exercise in taste. It's going to Wave Roppongi and buying AC/DC for a laugh. It's very different from Eminem recontextualisation, which arises out of necessity: young Marshall Mathers is on his way to school and people are offering him drugs and sticking guns in his face and there's loud rap booming threateningly from the bass bins of passing cars and the radio in the local cafe is nothing but 1-800 numbers and ugly hard sell, and the food is shit, so what else is there to do but just vomit it all back in the technicolour hurl of an ugly rap record?

There's recontextualisation going on in Japan all right, but it's ludic, luxurious recontextualisation, not the life-or-death sort we aesthetes have to develop in the west to save our pale skins. Where's the hostile recontextualisation? The gay recontextualisation? Where's the Japanese John Waters?Where are the ironic mullets? Are artists in this 'consensus society' saving energy for better things by not fighting for their blessed lives all the time, or is the benign fascism of Design Zen denying them some important colours in the palette: dark tones, defensive shades, angry quotes?

Appointment With The Wise Ape

Will I, as David Bowie said, get too zen to write here in the becalmed islands of Japan, where graphic design seems to count for more than social class, where the fructifying distractions of social tension (give or take the odd sarin gas attack or callous schoolboy murder, of course) are astonishingly absent? Or will I, on the contrary, learn the great hieratic secrets of form so obviously known only to the Japanese, secret wisdom which can flourish undistracted and undisturbed only because of Japan's monolithic, protected culture? Will I, artistically speaking, attain enlightenment? It's time to ask the wise ape.

Fifteen minutes up the Meguro River by bike from my apartment is the Alpha Spin Building, home of 3D Corporation. On the fifth floor Cornelius is working on his new album, provisionally entitled 'Point'. (Why? 'I looked in the dictionary and saw there were many meanings for this word,' he explains. 'It's ambiguous.') He's been listening to Janet Jackson's new album a lot of late, he tells me. The 'Point' sessions have lasted a year already, though of course Keigo stopped briefly to marry Takako Minekawa and bring up his new baby.

I sit on a strip-lit orange plastic cloud sofa and listen to the new stuff. It's an exciting moment, for on this record hangs, some would say, not just the future credibility of Japanese Avant Pop but also the legitimacy of the whole Design Zen system. Can its dilettante formalism hold its own against the class and race strife whose blessed contradictions create so much western art?

The first piece Keigo plays is designed to accompany a DVD. It's in five speaker sound format. It starts with some extreme, epicurian glitchy noises and digital distortion, then breaks into a calm mantra of multi-layered voices: 'Black and white, me and you'. It sounds like the Beach Boys retooled by Tortoise. Cornelius, I can report, has not gone 80s.

Keigo tells me he's used few samples on this record apart from birdsong and water noise, although his voice has been sampled and elongated. On another track there's a reprise of the robot voice he used in the Honda Asimo robot commercial he scored last year, an amazing and spooky film in which a robot dances with a little girl in a rustic Italian courtyard. There's only one hard rocking track so far, because the album has all been recorded in the comfortable confines of the 3D studio, a bright and airy eerie full of chic musical toys, with nary a Marshall stack in sight. Instead there's a groovy Maestro drum box I'd kill for (that sound is all over my recent records, but I can only afford samples), a little Waspy blue suitcase synth with a cute crochet-style patchbay (actually a mint EMS AKS with a DK1 capacitative keyboard), a red Nord Lead, a steel slide guitar, Moogs, samplers and an Apple G3 running Logic Audio. It's an editing suite rather than a music studio, and Cornelius is to editing what Beethoven was to composing. The album is due later this year.

I put it to Cornelius that the difference between him and Eminem is that Cornelius recontextualises for fun, whereas Eminem does it because he has to. Tokyo is just so playful and pleasant, with everything spread out for discerning producers and consumers, and I'm wondering if the Design Zen doesn't take some of the stroppy, contentious urgency out of the art made here?

Keigo replies that if the threatened recession hits these problems of paradise will disappear, replaced by real pain, stress and trauma. It's a good point. Japan is a society where dilettantism is poised eternally on the edge of dissolution, like the soft drink vending machines balanced on the crater rim at the top of Mount Fuji. It would just take an earthquake, or a little rumble like a recession or a random missile from a rogue state, to plunge the whole nation, with its cutey girls and design fetish boys, into the abyss.

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