Friday, December 26, 2014

Nothing Less Than Perfection: The Dedication of Japan’s Master Craftsmen

Tekumi Manabu Ikeda can take years to finish one of his renowned detailed paintings. Via.

The work is done, but just one small detail seems off. If no one notices, is it worth fixing?

In Japan, the answers to questions like these are what separate an ordinary artisan from takumi – masters of their craft.

Takumi are artists who have honed and perfected their skills over years, perhaps a lifetime, of training. They can be craftsmen, potters, and textile makers, among many other professions, and are a major part of Japanese tradition. Though their numbers have dwindled, there are still many active takumi who remain dedicated to their craft. In contemporary Japan, the term has acquired a more generic adjectival meaning, implying a person with an especially sophisticated skill in any field of creation, including food and fashion.

These masters are known for dedication to their philosophies and methods of art-making, and the artists featured in Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights are no exception. Each artist possesses traits common to all takumi: perfectionism, diligence, and most importantly, discipline.

Manabu Ikeda exemplifies this with his incredibly detailed drawing style that is extremely time-consuming to achieve; one large-scale work can take him two or more years to complete. Using a fine-point pen, Ikeda creates monumental landscapes that can overwhelm the viewer at first glance.

Hisashi Tenmyouya is a different kind of takumi who skillfully blends tradition with modern themes. His works juxtapose traditional symbols and imagery with a brash, contemporary style that he calls Neo Nihonga―a renewed, revitalized version of Japanese-style painting.

TeamLab is a collective of hundreds of takumi working in various areas of art, design and technology. Via

Like Tenmyouya, teamLab blends the old and the new, but follows a more technology-oriented path. As an expansive collective of creators from varying specialties (it now has over 300 members), it’s a far cry from the traditional solitary image of takumi, but when looking at the amazingly high-tech work the members have created, it’s hard to deny that they’re just as deserving of the title.

Discussing takumi in the catalog for Garden of Unearthly Delights,  exhibition co-curator Laura J. Mueller said the works "are imbued with an undeniable spirituality or religiosity that adds great weight to their effectiveness and meaning."

Japan Society has presented many exhibitions featuring takumi in recent years. Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century (2006) exhibited some of Japan’s finest potters and celebrated the rich history of Japanese ceramics and those who have made lasting contributions to the art form over the past half century.

The Genius of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin (2008) showcased Japan’s greatest lacquer artist, recognized worldwide for his exquisitely detailed lacquered boxes, panels, sword mounts, and other objects, as well as scrolls painted in both ink and lacquer.

And New Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Masters (2009) was devoted exclusively to Japanese bamboo as a sculptural medium, which featured 90 works from 23 innovators who demonstrate awesome technique, meticulous attention to detail, and extraordinary creativity.

As takumi tend to be innovators, each of them have wildly different and recognizable styles, such as Ikeda’s; once you’ve been mesmerized by one of his massive drawings, you’re not likely to forget it.

However, there’s one thing they all share: an obsession with perfection, the results of which we’ll be able to appreciate for years to come.

--Mark Gallucci

Tenmyouya at work. Via.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Smashing in Pink: Japan's Artful, Rebellious Film Genre

Actress Kaori Okamoto bares (almost) all in Top Stripper. © 1982 Nikkatsu Corporation.

Adult film is a genre often avoided by film critics, and for obvious reasons: stories tend to be nonexistent, plots are often anemic and loaded with clichés, and the acting is more happenstance than skillful.

But there are some films that don’t quite line up with the traditional types of adult film often seen in the West, such as Japan's unique mid-20th century soft-core pinku eiga, or Pink Film,  a genre all to itself.

As John Zorn, curator of Japan Society's ongoing Dark Side of the Sun series of outré films told the New York Times, the genre has “no relation at all to erotica in the rest of the world… They are fully realized films, often done with great artistry and a fabulous imagination. They proved to be testing grounds of many young visionary directors who later went on to more mainstream projects.” (The series continues Dec. 11 with the "comic-erotic coming-of-age story" Top Stripper.)

Scholar Joel Neville Anderson, who curated Japan Society's 2014 JAPAN CUTS festival says Pink Film is "a parallel industry which became a fertile creative training ground for young, politically-minded filmmakers of the 1970s following the collapse of the studio system. The genre sustained generations of filmmakers that often broke into the mainstream, as well as a filmgoing public attending devoted Pink theaters. Critical reception of the films always negotiates the political potential of this counterpublic, and their portrayal of misogynistic, conventional sexual violence."

Pink Films can belong to almost any standard genre, but do have some fundamental elements, according to Donald Richie in The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts:
Since each [film] is intended to be shown with two others, the ideal length decided upon is 6,500 feet, or 70 minutes… In theory, directors are instructed to aim at some kind of sex scene every five minutes; in practice, however, it has proved almost impossible to construct a story-line which allows this, with the results that sex scenes are sometimes fewer but longer.
Those required sex scenes are markedly different from what one might expect of an adult film. In accordance with Japanese law, filmmakers can't show pubic hair, let alone genitalia. This leads to some strategic placement of props, blurring, or even just leaving the act out of the frame entirely.

Other defining characteristics of Pink Films include the 35mm film typically used to record them, as well as their low budgets, as Richie explains: “Actresses receive about $60 a day, actors as low as $30. The cost for such a film can be as low as $2,000, though many cost more, particularly those in part-color.”

As for the intercourse itself, it’s entirely simulated; actors use pads called maebari to cover their genitals, which can’t be shown anyway. Without the potential to show the scenes uncensored, an innovative, often artistic approach becomes necessary. It is the ability to appeal to the curiosity of the viewer that made Pink Films so successful.

It all started in 1962 with Flesh Market, which caused controversy in Japan upon its release due to six sexually violent scenes that were deemed by police to be “indecent”, as described by Roland Domenig in The Pink Book. A mere two days after the film’s release, the police had stopped all showings of the film and confiscated all of the prints and negatives. When the film was re-released with the objectionable scenes removed, it proved immensely profitable – while it was only made for 8 million yen, it ended up bringing in 100 million.

Flesh Market was only the beginning. Because producers of these films only cared that their guidelines, much like the ones listed above, were met, directors had incredible freedom to pursue their own creative interests. This meant that Pink Films and their directors were very independent; they stood in stark contrast to the failing, mainstream studios of the time, luring audiences in with a product that had never been available before.

One of these independent directors was Koji Wakamatsu. Known as “the most genuinely controversial figure of the period” of Pink Film, Wakamatsu founded his studio, Wakamatsu Productions, in 1965. He was known for his political, often sexually violent films, such as Go, Go Second Time Virgin, The Embryo Hunts in Secret, and Violated Angels, which was based on the 1966 Richard Speck murders.

According to Japanese-culture author Patrick Macias in his 2001 book TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, "No one had up to that point, or since, filmed porn with as overtly politically radical and aesthetically avant-garde an agenda as Wakamatsu had."

In an interview with American actor Christian Storms, Wakamatsu said, “the people who make things, who create in this world, have to remain on the outside, have to look at the world sometimes from a different perspective, saying: ‘Hold on!’ Somebody taking a different view.”

It was this perspective that allowed Wakamatsu to make such shocking films - films that received not only attention, but critical acclaim. Wakamatsu was able to see both the rise and fall of the Pink Film, going on to direct over 40 films throughout his lifetime before his passing in 2012.

Japan Society commemorated Wakamatsu’s work with a screening of Atsushi Yamatoya’s Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands, which launched the Dark Side of the Sun film series. Yamatoya was one of Wakamatsu’s close collaborators and worked for Wakamatsu Productions as an anonymous writer. The film is about a hitman who is hired to rescue a wealthy real-estate agent’s girlfriend from a gang of men who are holding her hostage, though the film’s idiosyncratic, hallucinatory nature makes it a bit more complex than that.

Today there may not be many chances left to see Pink Films the way they were intended to be shown–in theaters. Even in Japan, Pink Films have all but vanished, with only a few theaters still standing. While Pink Films enjoyed impressive popularity in the 60s and 70s, by 1980, adult videos began to capture the Pink Film market, and by the end of the decade, adult video had far surpassed Pink film in popularity.

While many other Pink Film directors might lament this loss of popularity, Wakamatsu, as was often the case, had a different perspective.

“Movies can't really be called ‘Pink’ if they are being accepted by the general public. They've always got to be guerilla. Pink Films are about putting it out there in the public’s face and smashing people’s minds.”

--Mark Gallucci

Friday, December 5, 2014

Bases Covered: MLB Player's Long-Term Support of Japan Earthquake Recovery

Presenters at the Nov. 15 MLB press conference to spotlight earthquake recovery.

It’s the Japan All-Star Series, an annual goodwill competition between America’s and Japan’s best baseball players, and the Americans are down 2-0. Game 3 at the Tokyo Dome is a must-win for the MLB All-Stars, who will need to win three in a row to emerge victorious in the best-of-five series.

Yet on November 15, the day of the game, twelve of the MLB players were not on the field warming up, but packed into a small room with representatives from Japan Society and the Major League Baseball Players Trust. Among the players present were Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, and Astros outfielder Dexter Fowler.

Also present were the people they were there to meet: representatives from organizations that the Players Trust supports through Japan Society’s Japan Earthquake Recovery Fund (JERF), created to aid victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which devastated Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

The Players Trust, which allocated $1 million in support following the earthquake, began a multi-year partnership with Japan Society in 2012, working with JERF on five recovery projects.

"We as players are very fortunate, and always very excited, to use the help of the Players Trust to make an impact on the world," Guthrie said at the press conference. "The slogan that we have is, 'Care. Act. Inspire.' Working with Japan Society has allowed us to be able to do this on an international level."

Chris Capuano and his wife enjoy a meal at Organ Dou. Via

Prior to the event, Guthrie, Pirates pitcher Mark Melancon, and free agent Chris Capuano, who is considering a move to Japan, visited Fukushima Organ Dou, a store set up by the Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network, to enjoy some of the farmers’ produce. Thanks to the support they received through JERF, the farmers were able to afford machines that thoroughly test their produce for significant levels of radiation, ensuring their customers that their food is safe to eat. Capuano said:
We're here today because as players, we're very happy to be able to support Fukushima. The area was hard hit by a tsunami back on March 11 of 2011, and there’s still a great need of recovery. A lot of these farmers in Fukushima need our help today. They need our support in showing that they've come a long way. The produce is safe and delicious to eat, and we're happy to be able to still support them.
As of September 3, 2014, JERF has received $13.89 million from over 23,600 individuals, companies and foundations from all 50 states and nearly 60 countries around the world. To date, it has distributed $13.6 million to 43 organizations in support of 64 projects

In addition to the Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network, the Players Trust through JERF also supports Ashoka Japan’s Tohoku Youth Venture program, which grants seed money to high-school and college students who devise viable creative and innovative ideas for revitalizing the Tohoku region; two mental-health care projects with the Japanese Medical Society that provide services and training in Fukushima and Iwate Prefectures; and a leadership development project led by Japan Society and ETIC that promotes entrepreneurship towards self-sustaining economic and community revitalization in Tohoku.

These and all  projects supported by JERF give a much-needed boost to Japan’s recovery in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, which, according to the National Police Agency of Japan, left nearly 16,000 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and thousands still considered missing.  It also took a massive toll on buildings, with more than 120,000 totally destroyed. Today, nearly four years after the tragic events, more than 93,000 people are living in temporary housing, with construction plans facing delays.

The immediate concern has shifted from cleanup to reconstruction, as reviving the economies of the small towns hit hardest by the earthquake is a major priority. Since farming is a major part of Japan’s small-town economies, that means bringing in soil from other areas to cover ground rendered infertile by seawater– a process costing upwards of $90 million.

Though debris has been cleared, seawalls are being constructed, and in many highly populated areas a sense of normalcy has returned, the recovery process is far from over. In an interview with Reuters , Japan Society president Motoatsu Sakurai said, "it is very, very evident in Japan this recovery process will continue for more than 10 years."

And because it’s such a lengthy process, it needs all the attention it can get, as Players Trust director Melissa Persaud alluded to at the press conference.

"The players take a long-term approach to their disaster-relief support," Persaud said. "They have learned that too often, after the initial media spotlight fades on a region or people devastated by a disaster, the support fades as well. Yet the needs remain for quite some time."

--Mark Gallucci

Top photo courtesy of MLB. First Row (left to right): Akihiro Asami, Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network; Yoshiaki Ishikawa, ETIC; Shinichi Niwa, Kokoro no Care, Nagomi; Hiroshi Yamanaka, Kokorogake; Akiko Ito, Kokorogake; Toshikazu Abe; Mina Sato, Tohoku Youth Venturer; Nana Watanabe, Ashoka Japan. Second Row: Drew Butera, LA Dodgers; Jeremy Gutherie, KC Royals; Rob Wooten, Brewers; Chris Capuano, NY Yankees; Dexter Fowler, Houston Astros; Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners; Salvador Perez, KC Royals; Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays; Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates; Tsuyoshi Wada, Chicago Cubs; Jerry Blevins, Washington Nationals; Jeff Beliveau, Tampa Bay Rays; Shoko Takamatsu, Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network; Koji Yamauchi, ETIC.