Sunday, June 23, 2013

tokyo notes

Perpetually disappearing into the line drawings and flat colours of anime films in my head- from the first look at the green light on the empty plazas of institutions closed for the night; to the birds eye view from the Skytree of the sprawling low rise carpet of houses with the clusters of high rises at Shinjuku, Roppongi, Tokyo station and Shibuya in the distance, or even from the trains as they fly over the city and sometimes suddenly enter the most intimate of streets, Tokyo was always blowing up in my head into spectacular colour and smoke. 

Perhaps it was the fact that the people too seemed to be content in a world of their own- on the train- immersed in the world of telephone games and manga, or on the streets in the uniforms that they had chosen for themselves- the character they wanted to be that day or maybe that week- emphasising the difference that they have from the rest of the world and the alliances that they have chosen. each group travelled in packs - in typologies. Each of these were iconographically imagined and constructed with great care. I think I identified around 5 genres. The business suit- stiff, black, sometimes pinstriped, clean shaven, short cropped hair; the schoolboy/girl- generally pre teen/teen- in neatly ironed and clean uniforms, walking the teen hangouts of the city- Harajuku with its youth scene- vibrant colours and bohemian beads being one; the preppy- the type of guy/girl who plays the hero in the tennis dramas in manga- well turned out, sweaters and sneakers with laces that pop in neon colours, and a cool bag in leather or canvas; and then the two opposite ends of the spectrum in female typologies- the goth- purple hair and piercings and black all over otherwise; to the fairy- chiffon and floral all over, all edges blurry, high platform shoes, lace socks and a colour scheme of pastel and pink- maybe a butterfly in the hair. 

At Akihabara- the manga and anime heart of Tokyo, the buildings are wrapped in the limpid eyes of these characters. On the streets girls in maid costumes seduce you with their high heels and lace stockings into coming into cafes for a drink and a tender light eroticism. Off the streets the difference between the animated and the real disappears further. Within the gaming centres the red floors are stacked with machines- from the lower floors for teen girls to pick dolls of their favourite characters in vending machines to the upper floors where Mukund and I fought zombies in a red curtained capsule and 4d effects- the seat shook every time we shot our machine guns. Outside groups of kids stood and ran in artificial landscapes and killed each other in play. 


In the world of anime the boys are made even more male and the girls even more female. Samurais and geishas. These distortions into perfection are layered in perpetually escalating degrees until they are exaggerated to a point where they fall apart. Inside the manga stores where genres are separated by floors or zoned out in narrow darkened alleys, older men stone-faced browse the defiling of young wide eyed girls in school dresses and Little pre teens girls in packs browse love stories where pretty young boys feel each other up between violent murder and sado-masochism. They browse these stories and feel a romantic longing- the drama between innocence and depravity being the key to this eroticism. And you can even collect the dolls, the posters- hunky men in underwear hugging each other and staring out at you with manga eyes or the two adolescent boys in their underwear staring bewildered out of the box wrapped in plastic. Dolls everywhere. On the streets and in the shops.  

Mukund said that he had not been inside any of these shops- and it did seem that it was a culture insular, self contained and obscure to most who do not belong. Outsiders like me can only hope to browse like voyeurs fascinated by the madness of artifice and technology. 

the map of railways in tokyo is like a bowl of noodles- colours swirl in every direction, twist and distort in mangled formations. Few maps dare to show the whole network. There are networks above ground, below ground, government run, private run.. since we mostly travelled on this mad network of routes tokyo became for me a series of discontinuous spaces of glittering lights and markets. The relationship between them on ground was irrelevant. Geography was edited for me into dream. I could only see the physical relationships between the different areas on the days that we drove. Perhaps it was this fact too that led to me having the feeling of being immersed in a digital network where fantasy and reality intermingled in an orgy of technology. Like that drive on the Shuto expressway- shooting in between the buildings, or underneath the layers of roads and rails that pile up above you in swirling arcs- like in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Even the architecture of the city seemed to subscribe to this sense. On the fashion streets of Aoyama, Ginza or Omotesando starchitects build skins – each trying to outdo the other by donning a new garb - shallow and seductive.. MVRDV try and break the box and so does maki’s spiral building. Toyo Ito, Sanaa, Herzog and De Meuron, Renzo Piano.. The list of stars goes on and becomes a blur of futuristic projections. 


The glittering futuristic longings of the city affected all the architecture. Perhaps the most poignant was the sight of the Nagakin Capsule Tower as it ages in a corner near the Tsukiji Fish Market. As the capsules age and rust you cant help but feel a nostalgia for that idea of the future- where we would all live in tiny little prefabricated modules cantilevered form a staircase core- like  good little robots. I wonder what the future is going to bring for the glittering commodities like the distorted lens diamonds of Herzog And De Meuron at Omotesando or the glass box sheen of Renzo Piano at Ginza. The Ando buildings attempted to resist this shifting landscape outside by reverting to clean monk-like exposed concrete, whether it was in the Ometosando Hills complex or the Design 21/21 Project- and felt regressive- as on the other hand the wild geometric pyrotechnics of the the Iceberg Building that tried to replicate the dynamic of the city in the stiffness of architecture.
The Yokohoma Port Terminal somehow managed to do both by taking recourse to the permanences and movements of landform. Wooden floorboards split, sunk, twisted on a pier, making horizons that dip and rise against the overcast sky making hills and valleys, peaks and caves. As you walk you rise and fall from floor to floor seamlessly weaving between the inside and the outside. And there was the Kenzo Tange cathedral rising in shining metal swoops from a stone base in between low rise residential houses with a tower into the sky and a cavernous concrete interior. 

Even the non-iconic architecture in the city reminds you of a diagram of a modern city. Plain glass boxes or shapes out of a science fiction film- like Tange’s Cocoon Tower in Shinjuku or the Roppongi Hills development. And the housing in setagaya ku where the rich live in toy boxes in tight plots. 50 cms setback and then a play of lego. Cubes and pyramids in plain white or exposed concrete. Windows strategically placed asymmetrically or in a rigid symmetry that evokes faces. Sometimes the monastic zen aspirations of exposed concrete. 

But it is not only modernist pleasure that is taken to extremes  - the Shinjuku skyline is marked by the Kenzo Tange government building symmetrical and almost fascist in nature. The plaza in front is surrounded by the heavy beige of bureaucracy and other hotels and commercial buildings in the area also reek of corporate boredom. 

On the other side of the station, past the crowds spilling out of the station and the street performers are the lights and crowds of Shinjuku. Love hotels as fantasies of elsewhere- where ‘resting’ is a euphemism for a romp room for the hour. Venice, Rome, London, new york- Europe is still the fantasy for the east. Then there are the buildings with a club on every floor for every desire- men, women, maids.. marked only by their name and not by anything else on the boards of the buildings. the facades covered by the faces of lovely young girls and boys dressed to kill. Roppongi too simmered with a sexual undercurrent in the evening. Nigerian bouncers tried to lure and intimidate you into coming into the clubs where nude girls performed for your pleasure. Shibuya glittered and gleamed in the rain soaked streets at the famous overcrowded crossing where a sea of people exchanged sidewalks when the lights turned on. It needed to be played in slow motion. On the streets comic book stores, gift shops and love hotels. While ‘Mandarake’ the comic book store went down into a dank basement, ‘Tokyo hands’ rose upwards spiralling with every half floor selling different make-it-yourselves. 

My first brush with Japanese nationalism came when I dropped some sushi unceremoniously from my chopsticks at lunch. The aged Japanese man besides me told me that it was not against etiquette to eat by hand- and so I did. But when he heard that I was coming from Taiwan- he immediately started extolling to me the advantages of Japanese nationalism- we invaded the rest of Asia to bring civilisation to them. They loved us- he said- and I must say, that having spoken to a few Taiwanese about it since I have been here- the relationship of Japan to Taiwan is ambivalent. Not so the relationship with China- though. The Yasukuni shrine memorial seems unapologetic about Japanese war aggression. It is the site for controversy every time a Japanese politician pays homage there as it represents japans war atrocities including the horrific Nanjing massacre for which there is a museum in that Chinese city. Meanwhile in the temples and in the language the relationship between the two countries is more complicated. The temple forms evoke Chinese temples, while the language mimics Chinese characters.

A last image before I end - One day Mukund drove me out of the city of tokyo. We went past the housing colonies and suburbs spread out till the foot of the mountains and then climbed into the tourist towns dotting the hills. From a cable car that flew over the sulphur springs bubbling under towards a lake for where we can ride pirate boats across we could see the stunning profile of mount fuji in the distance- still covered with snow at the top.