Tokyo on Foot

Title: Tokyo on Foot
Author/Artist: Florent Chavouet
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 206

While I was in New York City for the New York Comic Con last weekend, I met a friend of mine for lunch. Accompanying her was her new fiancé, a really cool guy who’s lived and traveled all over Asia. All over Asia except for Japan, that is. He said that, based on the Japanese movies he’s seen, he’s a bit afraid of Tokyo. It seems too big, and too modern, and too noisy – hyperkinetic and almost like science fiction. I asked him what Japanese movies he’s seen. Akira and Lost in Translation, he told me.

I think that, for a lot of people who are familiar with Japan but haven’t actually been there, Japan exists not as a real place where real people live but rather as some sort of strange and exotic fantasy land called “Japan.” For some people, “Japan” consists of towering skyscrapers and flashing lights and all-night karaoke rooms, while for some people “Japan” is all about green mountains and cherry blossoms and Zen temples and tea houses. There is a touch of good old fashioned Orientalism at play here; but, then again, Japan actively markets itself in such a way as to encourage these assumptions, even domestically. Furthermore, the fantasy of “Japan” is perhaps not so fantastical – places like the 109 Building in Shibuya and the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto really do exist.

In the end, though, Japan is a real place where real people live, and it’s not any more beautiful or ugly or modern or rural than, say, New Jersey. What I love about Florent Chavouet’s Tokyo on Foot is that it visually depicts Tokyo as a real city with many, many faces. Yes, there are huge buildings and busy intersections in West Shinjuku, but there are also tiny restaurants and old houses on the verge of falling apart in West Ikebukuro. And then there’s everything in between, from architectural oddities in Ueno to cute little bars in Daikanyama to Shintō shrines nestled between skyscrapers in Takadanobaba. Chavouet draws them all beautifully.

Tokyo on Foot is divided into neighborhoods, with each section opening with a drawing of the local kōban (police station) and a highly detailed annotated map. What follows this map are several pages of drawings of buildings, street corners, storefronts, landmarks, and occasionally people that the artist observed in the neighborhood. Most of these drawings occupy a full page, and all of them are in high-contrast full color. Chavouet’s drawings of people are caricatured, and his drawings of buildings and objects are almost photorealistic, but all of his subjects receive the same careful attention to detail. Chavouet’s medium of choice is colored pencils, and his pencil work really brings out the colors and textures of everything he draws. Really, it’s gorgeous.

Chavouet often accompanies his sketches with annotations. He’ll make small notes concerning the weather, how he got to a certain location, and what interactions he had with the people who watched him drawing. He’ll also include small cultural details, like the fact the Mr. Donuts offers free coffee refills. In each section, there is usually at least a page or two of smaller sketches illustrating concepts like the vast insect population of Tokyo or how to make a disco lamp using cheap materials from Tokyu Hands (“like Target, only better”). There is occasionally political commentary as well, such as when the artist draws the heads of conservative male politicians attached to the bodies of young women in bikinis or mocks the nonsense spewed by the right wing campaign trucks that tour the streets of Tokyo (“Down with kisses and TLC, long live war and mean people”). In a scattered and roundabout manner, Chavouet also turns a satirical eye on the police officers who repeatedly harassed him for parking his bike in the wrong place and/or loitering (in other words, staying in one place long enough to draw it).

What Chavouet draws is a Tokyo that isn’t some futuristic (or idyllic) alien city but rather a city where people live, work, drink, smoke, have trouble finding parking, chill out in coffee shops to get out of the rain, hang out with their friends, sometimes act like assholes or creeps in public, take lunch breaks in the park, and all the other things people do in a huge urban area filled with millions of people. Through his pencil work, Chavouet depicts the beauty of the monumental, the grimy, the quaint, and the pedestrian. Rows of potted plants outside of someone’s house in a small back alley just behind a major train station can be just as calming and peaceful as a painstakingly manicured Zen garden, and telephone poles covered in posters can be just as awe-inspiring as Corinthian columns.

I can’t wrap my head around how much I love this book. Get this book for yourself. Get this book for your hipster art school friends. Get this book for your mom who doesn’t understand why you care about Japan in the first place. And get this book for your friend’s fiancé who thinks Japan is exactly like Akira. At least, that’s what I plan on doing.

Little Boy

Title: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures
Editor: Takashi Murakami
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 300

Little Boy is most definitely the contemporary Japanese art exhibition catalog to end all art exhibition catalogs. It quickly sold out when it was first released, and secondhand copies now sell for ridiculous amounts of money. The Japan Society of New York has finally released a softcover edition, which it sells in its headquarters in New York City. The new edition is just as gorgeous and well put together as the original hardcover version; so, if it’s at all possible for you to acquire one, go for it! Quickly! Do it now! Before you even start reading this review! Yes, it’s that good.

The first one hundred or so pages of this catalog feature full color plates of various artworks, photographs, and screen stills. Through these plates, pop artist extraordinaire Murakami Takashi attempts to demonstrate in images the thesis of his introductory essay “Earth in my Window.” Murakami’s main argument can be summarized in two points. First, the Pacific War, especially the two atomic bombs that ended it, left an indelible scar on the Japanese psyche. Second, the experience of having been defeated in war and thereafter occupied by America has turned multiple generations of Japanese people into perpetual children. The first point is illustrated by plates demonstrating recurring nuclear imagery in films and television serials such as Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and various tokusatsu (“special effects”) films released by Tōhō Studios, as well as in the artistic output of artists like Yanobe Kenji and Murakami himself. The second point is easily demonstrable by the overtly cartoonish and childlike work of artists such as Nara Yoshitomo, Ban Chinatsu, and Mr., as well as by the designs of popular and festishized kyara (“characters”) like Hello Kitty. Following these images and explanatory essay is a short manifesto penned by Murakami to support his superflat art movement, which is apparently based on the idea that contemporary Japan needs art that reflects its current cultural status of being awash in meaningless junk.

Next up is a transcription of a conversation between Okada Toshio and Morikawa Kaichirō (two self-proclaimed experts of “otakuology”) moderated by Murakami. Morikawa in particular states that otaku are characterized by an obsession with things that are dame (absolutely useless), whether it’s collecting antique model kits or falling in love with moe (young and innocent) characters. Okada seems to have a somewhat more optimistic view of otaku, who he thinks are simply resorting to childish things in order to escape a meaningless and unforgiving life. This conversation is superbly illustrated by images of the cultural paraphernalia the two men mention, and it also includes several dozen footnotes explaining their various obscure otaku references.

Following this conversation are two academic essays by Japanese scholars, Sawaragi Noi and Matsui Midori. Sawaragi discusses how the Pacific War has filtered through Japanese pop culture in movies like the Godzilla and Space Battleship Yamato series, and Matsui discusses the subculture of kawaii (“cute”) in postwar Japan, especially in terms of how it is connected to art depicting women and art by women artists like Takano Aya and Mizuno Junko. Following these two essays by Japanese authors are two essays by American authors, Alexandra Munroe and Tom Eccles. Munroe offers a history of otaku subculture from the perspective of a Western observer, and Eccles attempts to situate the superflat movement with the history of Western pop art. All of these essays (as well as everything else in the catalog) are presented in both English and Japanese, with a column of English text on the left and a column of Japanese text on the right. Finally, the “Further Readings” section at the end of the book is an invaluable six-page bibliography of related works in both English and Japanese.

In short, Little Boy is gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. The dual language presentation is unobtrusive for readers of one language but wonderful for readers of both. Murakami’s presentation of Japanese culture itself is both extremely interesting and highly controversial. This catalog is a work of art and an object of culture in and of itself. No matter what your field of interest is, I highly recommend picking up a copy before they’re all gone.