Saturday, 28 June 2008
I ended up this afternoon at the print museum in Iidabashi enjoying an exhibition of what were mostly pretty fantastic 1950s Japanese advertisements. Obviously, one has to recognise that the exhibition was compiled from a modern point of view, but nevertheless one of the most striking features about it was damn cool Japanese poster art was back then.
There's a debate over at the excellent Neojaponisme blog at the moment about what constitutes "Cool Japan", where one major divide seems to be from those who feels that anime had a large role to play in the development of Japan as something hip and those who prefer to see it as something that appeared in the 90s and 2000s as a result of pop and fashion culture with anime as a quite separate issue. Part of the division seems to be between the American and British commenters -- as a Brit, I seem to remember that cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk anime like Akira and Ghost In The Shell were extremely cool in the 1990s and the whole image of dystopian Shibuya neon tracking right back to Blade Runner and William Gibson made Japan seem like very much the place to be.
Part of the context of the Neojaponisme discussion seems to be the antipathy between America and Japan in the late 80s and early 90s and the way that dissolved as Japan's economic situation declined and America's strengthened during the Clinton era. Some comments suggest there was less of that in the UK and Europe since Japan wasn't an economic competitor the way it was with America at that time (us poor Brits in the midst of the darkest days of the Thatcher era were more worried about recession and the poll tax than east/west willy-waving). Nevertheless, I'd be surprised if the alignment between the aggressive modernism of 80s~ Japan and the dystopian futurism of Gibson et al didn't have a major impact on Japan's cachet in the 90s.
I'm not au fait enough with the ins and outs of current trends to begin to explain the undoubtedly extremely detailed and complex background behind why Japan now has major cultural cachet whereas in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s it didn't. However, what the 1950s Japanese Graphics exhibition shows is that regardless of the caprice of Western fashion and the often selective attention it pays to Japanese arts over time, there was still some extremely modern, extremely hip, extremely fashionable work going on in the Japanese commercial mainstream more than 50 years ago. It's easy to look at elements of the design and style and point to the influence of French or American artists, but there is also obviously something distinctly Japanese going on that enhances rather than diminishes the clean, stylish, essentially modernist lines of the designs.
What it also might show is the way the post-90s, post-"Cool Japan" filtering process can dig out articles of Japanese retro design that support and consolidate current trends in visual style. Bearing in mind that most modern Japanese visuals would generally be categorised under the loose bracket of "post-modernism", what does this say about the 1950s visuals shown at this exhibition? Are we being treated to a simple localisation of America/European modernist themes, or is this actually a precursor to the post-modern absorption and reconstitution that we have all come to know and love and that has come to define so much current "cool" Japanese art and design?