Monday, November 29, 2010

Notes Towards a Cultural Geography of Tokyo

Gaston Bachelard
I don't want to make it a general habit to put my research notes up here, but for the moment I'm a bit out of pocket, and I suppose occasional glimpses of the work in progress can only help.  As some of my recent posts have suggested, what I'm gravitating towards right now is a full-scale psychoanalysis of Tokyo as a spacial/mental construct.  In SF, at the amazing Green Apple bookstore, I happened across a book that I think is going to be vital to that effort - Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.  I wanted to get down a few thoughts that the book has triggered so far.

First of all, Bachelard's book is about the way the poetic image shapes our experience of space, and since my chapter is going to be part of a book about hip hop, the obvious and correct move is to integrate readings of how space is represented in Japanese hip hop, both lyrically and musically.  There are the broad categories of space representation in hip hop as a whole, then the specific ways this is implemented in Japan.  Immediately, it occurs to me that space in hip hop has two particularly important modes - the space of the 'hood, and the space of the club, both of which emerge both sonically and lyrically.  There's the spacial extensiveness of bass music, which can either flood out over a city block, or reverberate inside the box of the club, filling the body, going inward.  In Japanese hip hop , the hood gets represented in the work of Shingo Nishinari (named after his Osaka neighborhood) and MSC (whose song "Shinjuku Running Dogs" talks about Kabukicho/Nishishinjuku as an "unsleeping terminal").

The issue of place as a site for identity attachments was never a major component of psychoanalysis, and Bachelard makes the vital point that this leads frequently to the confusion of shifts in location for time's passage in human development.  Time and space are, if not interchangeable, then mutually dependent.  So aside from the music and lyrics, the chapter needs to look at the history of the city itself, from a psychoanalytic perspective of digging down into the layers below the street, as I did in my recent post about the firebombings. The city of Tokyo is a storehouse of memory, even though (actually, specifically because) so much of it is newly built.

This is also significant because time, space, and identity are so closely linked in Tokyo, in Japanese society more generally, and in particular in the Japanese attitude toward subculture.  For many here, participation in a subculture is something literally 'left at the door' when moving from subcultural spaces to professional or more generally social spaces.  So, space becomes not just the marker but the root of changes in identity.

Top 25 Albums of 2010

It was a good year for music - maybe even great, though it's always hard to tell on these things,  since so much depends on how closely you're paying attention.  This year I was paying close attention, and here's what came out on top.

25. Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers
24. Sun Araw – Off Duty + Boat Trip
23. The Golden Filter – Voluspa
22. Yellow Swans – Going Places
21. Rene Hell – Porcelain Opera
20. Big Boi – Sir Lucius Leftfoot: The Return of Chico Dusty
19. Emeralds – Does it Look Like I'm Here
18. Antony and the Johnsons – Swanlights
13. Dylan Ettinger – New Age Outlaws
10. Philip Jeck – An Ark for the Listener
9. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
8. Pocahaunted – Make it Real
7. Women – Public Strain
5. James Blake – CMYK EP

4. Forest Swords – Dagger Paths

3. Die Antwoord - $0$ (CD Release)

2. Gonjasufi – A Sufi and A Killer

1. Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Dream-Work, One

1) A man with vision split by technology - two different contact lenses - begins seeing a strange woman out of one eye (somehow just a reflection/construct of himself) until he ultimately encounters and makes love to her in a hall crafted of gilt and mirrors. Completely alone in the great hall, darkness around the edges, dark outside, the whole place dark and shadowy.

2) What the fuck? An ant with the gigantic, chitinous body of a grey spider? Ant’s thorax has grown a mock spider’s head?

3)Possible future study - the life world of north Texas.  Football games/watching on TV, shopping.  Intellectual effort expended on football, not music/culture.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Geography of Surface and Depth: San Francisco and Tokyo

The San Francisco underground – at least the part of the BART that I rode inside the city proper – is really terrible. There are no maps near the ticket machines, no audible station announcements, no signs with station names easily visible from the train at stops. If you want to know how to make the train less convenient and accessible than the bus, come to San Francisco. It's one stark contrast with Tokyo, whose subway organization and labeling is relentlessly clear and logical, down to a multilingualism that makes it potentially transparent (after a certain learning curve) to an array of foreigners.

The contrasts in the two cities' landscapes are layered and transverse. At the very surface, SF is a beautifully mystified city – a mosaic of murals, creative storefronts, beautiful century-old brass scrollwork, window displays, public art. By contrast, while I don't have a great deal of personal grounds for comparison, others before me have described Tokyo as one of the drabbest, if not outright ugliest, of the great cities. Its parks are scraggly and unkempt, and as much as they are romanticized by a certain American subset who fetishize their “postmodernity,” the unregulated trammel of racing neon lights, dirty plastic mascots, and frantically spinning tin signs amount more than anything to an unending eyesore. There are the struggles of a small few humanizers – graffiti artists and creative boutique retailers fighting the grey concrete and off-white tile, the textural regularity of the cheap and mass-produced buildings – but the fight, against indifferent ward governments and citizens long cowed into aesthetic submission, is one they can't win.

But at another level, the roles reverse. Beneath its surface vulgarity, for instance if we travel the paths of its streets and experience their flow, or even just look at a map of any random section of the 23 wards, we can see that Tokyo's humanity and chaos are inscribed at a deeper level. The map to the right happens to be of Shibuya, but shows a familiar pattern – a major hub towards which major streets and minor lanes alike converge, inconsistently, with kinks and swerves, revealing the trace of pedestrians and rickshaws and palanquins carving them by consensus over the course of a century or three. Streets bend and spiral, both at the level of the block and the level of the city as a whole.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Eyedea - I am right, and wrong.

So, it turns out Eyedea really did overdose.  I speculated about this possibility previously. I just came from the funeral of a friend of my brother's who committed suicide after a long history of depression and, I'm again going to speculate, difficulties with her family related to her sexuality (this is in Texas). After having seen tragedy firsthand, I can only refine my point to say that some people, artists or not, are closer to the dark edge of life, engaged in a more profound struggle with difficulty more than others.  I'm not the sort ever to even dabble in dangerous drugs, much less willfully take my own life, but I can say I have enough experience with the dark side to know that sometimes you can't control it.  So, peace to all those who fight.

Invasion of the Body Scanners

I flew yesterday from San Francisco to Fort Worth, and had my first run-in with the already infamous TSA body scanners.  I haven't been keeping really well-versed on the ongoing protests - I only learned about "Don't Touch My Junk" guy a day or two ago - and I didn't know that I was going to have to deal with the machine when I got to SFO yesterday.  So I hadn't had time to get worked into a lather, but the experience was disturbing enough without priming.  The capsule itself was disconcerting, for sure - it's mostly enclosed, with a rotating scanner bar that's fairly ominous, and requires assuming the stance of submission seen to the left.

But weirdly, I didn't really find myself getting agitated until I got out and as I made to walk and pick up my bags, I was stopped in a kind of corral on the other side, where I was told to "turn and face my bags" and again place my feed in two yellow footprints. 

This suddenly put my hackles up for a whole lot of reasons.  First, the guy who gave me this order (and that's essentially what it was) had a fairly thick accent, and I had to ask him three times what the hell he was telling me to do.  I know these jobs are shitty enough they probably can't be too picky about screeners' speaking ability, but in a high-tension situation like this, a little elocution goes a long way.  Second, there wasn't just the one guy there - two of them blocked my way, as if I might suddenly make a move and they would need to cooperate to subdue me. Third, I got to watch them pull aside a black guy and give him, let's say, the personal treatment, which is never fun to watch.  And finally, of course, was the simple absurdity of being made to stand at parade rest while a bunch of strangers examined an X-Ray of my sunken, hairless chest.

I found myself, without even thinking about it, getting very testy with the screeners very fast.  And this was after a great week in SF, with two seemingly cheerful San Franciscans. Of course, this might have been just a delayed release of the deep disturbance of being in a tiny clear chamber, being scanned.  It's just as humiliating and weird as sudden public outcry has suggested. People are starting to question where the line of fair trade between security and privacy lies, and while I'd tend to think it should have been somewhere back with subpoenaing library records, finding out it's at the point of actual genital contact is better than not finding it at all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Matthew Barney and MacArthur - Expiator and Guilty?

During my recent stop by San Francisco, I stopped by SFMOMA, where in 2006 I was lucky enough to catch the exhibit for Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9.  For reasons lost to the mists of time, though, I didn't get to see Barney's original performance for the opening - but amazingly, four years later, the apparatus he used to climb and traverse the inside of the SFMOMA's central tower are still there, along with the drawing he completed at the top of the tower.  What the accompanying explanatory text reminded me of was that Barney performed dressed as General Douglas MacArthur, and that MacArthur is also referenced in the opening music for Drawing Restraint 9, sung by Will Oldham, in which MacArthur is thanked by the Japanese people for repealing a whaling ban (whaling being central to DR9).

This contemporary article from the Guardian has Bjork diagnosing the thematic of MacArthur's appearance as Western male guilt, tied up in Nagasaki and authoritarianism and various other epochal crimes. It seems a fair analysis.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Holy Other: Unbowed by the Sublime

They're just about to release their first single on England's Transparent Records, but I'm already more excited about the producer Holy Other than anything in a long while.  The single's contents can (as is now the style) be heard entirely online at their myspace page, where I also recommend you check out the forty-minute "Sunshrine Mix" - I can't tell if this is some sort of screwtape/remix thing, or an actual 40 minutes of unreleased material.  Regardless, the songs YR LOVE and We Over are individually two of the most weirdly beautiful tracks I've ever heard, mining the same dusty/ghostly/bassy/darkgroove territory as producers like Forest Swords (album also coming out soon, sadly apparently only on CD).  Holy Other are getting compared a bit to Burial, which seems to me right in spirit but wrong on technical aspects - this doesn't feel like dance music, not even deconstructed and "experimentalized" dance music - in terms of rhythm and structure, if not sound, it's mining a decidedly rockier vein.  Specifically, there's a lot in common with shoegaze bands like Ride, Slowdive, and (not quite in that group, I guess) My Bloody Valentine.  The fact that it's all done by one guy, probably on a laptop, is still interesting, but by now I imagine that's pretty secondary. 

Holy Other 'Yr Love' from FAMILY on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pigeon Artist

It is right now 7am or something in Nakano, the sun coming up and telling us that all good boys should have been in bed.  You know, some time ago.  Instead I was in Roppongi until six a.m.  Towards the end I helped pile a half-coherent fifty year old political scientist into a cab as two Japanese women who'd joined us vaguely described his destination to the driver and we all crossed our fingers.  We refueled and exchanged phone numbers.  The best new friendships are born under fire.

But even better, as I walked back from Nakano station to Arai, along some half-paved side road,  I saw a man performing magic.  He was on top of an apartment block, waving a green, yellow, and red signal flag.  And as he waved the flag, a flock of pigeons moved around him, with infinite grace, like tamed lightning. They circled the building's top, again and again.  I stood and watched for ten, fifteen minutes, the very early morning traffic moving around me.  This was something practically supernatural, the mundane fabric of the city flicked to one side to reveal an oddity, creatures out of fantasy, made real through vision and not a little discipline - this must have taken decades to master. I was listening to this band called Dr. Dog who make sad and beautiful music, and it all added up to a truly amazing moment.

(Photo courtesy of Paz's New York Minute - very sadly, I didn't have my camera.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Koreans in the Midst: Korean National Identity in Japan

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of two amateur films about the situation of Korean-Japanese, or Zainichi.  One of those films can be seen online (Japanese only):

Before discussing the film itself, there are a few things worth noting. This is not some jingoistic pro-Korean film, but even still it stands out from the truly dark background of widespread Japanese attitudes.  I actually had trouble finding this video after the event, because a search for "Korean High School" turns up mostly angry screeds by right-wingers.  Even among those who have found this video, a number of the comments are ambiguous and even hostile; some are simply along the lines of "go back to Korea," but others show the notable subtlety of Japanese racism.  For instance, one guy argues that all Zainichi couldn't possibly be descendants of forced laborers from the WWII era, implying that they're somehow inflating historical wrongs for personal gain (a favorite trope of the Japanese right). I haven't yet read the best-selling hate manga "Against Koreans," but I wouldn't be surprised if this was one of the elaborate 'theories' laid out in it.

The film deepens the image of Japan as shockingly regressive in its attunement to the situation.  On the one hand, the opening montage of young people shows how scant actual knowledge about the situation of the Zainichi is among average Japanese. In fact, as came up in discussion after the viewing, many Japanese aren't even aware that the Zainichi exist.  It's not quite fair to make the comparison to the awakening of America to the problem of minority rights - the Zainichi situation is much more recent - but it's still jarring to hear people in a modern nation profess this kind of ignorance.  Also extremely strange is that it was deemed necessary to offer masks or other means of hiding the identity of so many of the participants. The subject is genuinely inflammatory, especially to an extreme and sometimes violent fringe, but the idea that speaking about it would be either embarrassing or dangerous is, again, completely foreign to my American mindset.

But the film also demonstrates a lot about the Zainichi population that could be deemed to contribute to the problem.  First and foremost, it really is amazing that the Japanese government is funding high schools within its own borders that indoctrinate Japanese permanent residents to follow a military opponent of Japan. It's convenient for the Japanese right to obscure both the differences between North and South and the history - North Korea didn't actually exist when most Zainichi families were first brought to Japan - but I can certainly understand where the outrage is coming from. 

More subtly, the Zainichi given the chance to speak in the film express a range of personal opinions that are probably difficult for some Japanese to hear without flinching. Like most expatriate communities, it's clear they still have great loyalty to their homeland. And the association of Zainichi who have at least some sympathy for the North (Chongryon) promote an active anti-integrationist agenda, encouraging members to renounce any possibility of Japanese citizenship, as well as the right to vote. In the U.S., this is much less of an issue because the political tensions pulling on immigrants are largely insignificant, but try this one on for size - would Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the U.S. be nearly as fun if Mexico was firing test rockets over Florida?  Or, more to the point - how about a Muslim cultural center?

The situation is exacerbated by the lack of any concept, on either side of the debate, separating nationality from citizenship, or more generally, of multiculturalism.  Korean activist groups (whether affiliated with North or South) consider accepting Japanese citizenship as synonymous with abandoning Korean identity, leaving Zainichi with a rather grim choice.  While international politics continues to make Zainichi its unfortunate playthings, even sudden peace with the North wouldn't solve the underlying problem - how do we reconcile the reality of the mobile 20th century (to say nothing of the 21st) with mindsets unable to approach national identity as something complex and multidimensional?

Soul Flower Union - Traditional Instruments, Contemporary Pop

One thing I've been paying attention to lately is the apparent rise in interest in Japanese traditional musical culture among young alterna-punks.  This takes a lot of forms, including the institutionalized re-emergence of Japanese classical music as part of the curriculum at schools like Geidai, and also grass-roots stuff like pop bands integrating older instruments into traditional pop songs.  For instance, here's the band Soul Flower Union:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tsukuba, Science Nightmare

I spent last night in Tsukuba, about an hour and a half northeast of Tokyo.  The landscape out there is a pretty mind-boggling contrast to Tokyo - huge, empty spaces, darkness, and six-lane roads. So late at night, it was like being on the moon or the north pole, empty and silent and oddly beautiful.  In that way, it's not far off from my hometown of Dallas/Fort Worth.  And oddly, there was a hip hop club there, a small place called Sol Y Luna, where I was lucky enough to see Nanorunamonai of Origami.  It felt a lot more like going to a club in the U.S. than anything in Tokyo - for instance, people were actually hanging out outside of the club, which pretty much never happens in town.  Still, I couldn't help being pretty bemused by the American guy trying to tell me how great it was to live in Tsukuba.  It didn't take me long to find the great side of living in Iowa, however remote - but my instincts all those years ago telling me to get the hell out of Fort Worth were absolutely spot on.  These places that are neither fruitfully urban - that is, not multi-use, walkable, and vibrant - nor truly rural, places that have been built to look like cities but are really just places for people to use their cars, are genuinely the worst accomplishments of human civilization.