An examination into Contemporary (1980-2012) Photography in Japanese adolescent popular culture:
Investigating the tension between consumerist and activist photography; using the representation of women as an example.
Before I begin I must to establish where I stand. I am a fan of Japanese pop culture. Some might even call me obsessed. However I have never been to Japan, everything I experience as a fan and as a Westerner is through the media, and for that reason I have a very specific view, an “outsiders” view if you like. The voices which authoritatively inform me are global companies, Sanrio, makers of hello kitty. Shoneen Jump, manga distributors. And cartoon network, the only channel in the UK that shows anime. All of these companies reflect my interaction with Japanese culture and they all have one thing in common. Making money. As a country our interaction with Japan is based on consumerism. Edward Said calls this Western consumer driven view of the East ‘Orientalism’. And we are Orientalists.
Tokyo. In the eyes of fiction writer William Gibson is a “Virtual-looking skyline, a floating jumble of electric Lego.” Inside this electric city lives a collection of vibrant and unique social trends that are driven by aesthetic values and a mass-culture patterns, otherwise known as Popular culture. One of these cultures takes it’s influence from Japanese comics (Manga) and animation (anime), Kawaii culture (cute culture) is occupied with all things sweet and childlike. This highly visual culture dominated Japan in the 80′s and still holds it’s place as a popular culture today. The consumers of Kawaii are young girls. Rarely do we see a culture in which the power is in the hands of young women. In the West we have boyband culture which sells to young girls through admiration and obsession, but Kawaii culture is different. It sells cute plushies, frilly dresses, glittery stickers and big eyed dolls to school girls and young women.
Seems too adorable to be true? Like most cultural trends there is a dark undertone. Sex. Here we see the male gaze come into existence, twisting this culture into a multi-gender experience. Around the same time Kawaii came into existence, a sub-culture with a darker roots sprung from the world of anime and manga too… Otaku a word surrounded by Taboo, in Japan it’s usually associated with men who have an unhealthy obsession with an object. In this case I use Otaku to describe someone obsessed with anime. They are considered social outcasts, men who have relationships with the characters and fantasy worlds they see in cartoons, enjoying the company of fictional women rather than real ones. Drawn to the unrealistic depiction of women in anime Otaku’s obsess over erotic figurines and sexy posters.
The combination of Kawaii and Otaku creates a perfect recipe for selling, bright colours and childish aesthetic appeal taken from Kawaii culture, sexual imagery and cartoon styling taken from Otaku culture. Companies in Japan clocked on to this perfect hybrid culture, noticing the trend becoming more and more popular and appropriated the imagery to fit their product. Artist Takashi Murakami came up with a “catchphrase” for this merging of culture and consumerism, “superflat”, he suggests that society has become two dimension and that Japan lives in a flat superficial world, there is no line to establish what is art and what is a product, everything is made for mass consumption, and the only voices heard are the global giants. I aim to explore this notion in regards to photography. Do creatives living in Japan not question this combination as a moral issue? or has consumerist culture and Murakami’s ‘Superflat’ world become so dense that there is no voice for opposing opinions in the art world anymore?
At this point I must differentiate between the representation of adolescents and the use of adolescent values within representation. In exploring the use of adolescent depiction I am not talking about young girls who are portrayed in a sexual light through advertising, I am talking about women who are being encoded with childish aesthetics in order to play off popular culture imagery and sell products. Through work like murakami’s the audience is assumed to be so mesmerized by the Kawaii aesthetics and pretty colours they do not notice the explicit sexual references and submissive angles. The authority of the brand protects the inappropriate nature. I am not attempting to make an attack on Japanese popular culture, like I said before I am a fan, What does concern me though is the manipulation of popular culture through monopolising companies, encoding models with sexual and adolescent representations within the same image.
Professor Judith Williamson literally wrote the book on decoding advertisements, in this book she wrote that “Advertisements obscure and avoid the real issues of society”. In regard to the images we are seeing here, I don’t agree. Rather than avoiding the Issues in society, these advertisements are enforcing them. Saying we know you will subconsciously accept this advert, with the questionable white substance that has nothing to do with the product, because you are consumers, you are used to this sexual references even if it’s selling a Hello Kitty product.
Unfortunately for the advertisers there are contemporary practitioners in Japan who are not accepting it, and refuse to live in a superflat world, being saturated with this consumer culture.
In March 2012 16 artists from Japan displayed their work in New York, in the hope the exhibition would open the West’s eyes to more than just superflat artists and their consumerist values. The exhibition entitled ”Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art” makes a direct attack on Hello Kitty, Japans most consumed character. Suggesting an end to an era.
Featured artist in the exhibition Makoto Aida who’s work aims to “further express Japans twisted parts”, produced a series of photographs prior to the exhibition which confronts societies acceptance by creating a character that conforms to advertisings values, and then by stripping away the characters context. The character painted onto the naked womens torso isn’t contained in it’s original space, nor in it’s consumerist place, it has not been manipulated by companies, protected by the product and glossy pages. It is out there, painted on the skin of a young woman. This is Aida’s attempt to instantly shock the spectator and make them begin to question what is considered normal or acceptable. Aida’s position as a male commenting on the depiction of women let’s him critique his own life as well as making others think about theirs. In a conversation for “Bye Bye Kitty” about his constant use of young women in his art Aida says this, ”I am not motivated from within to draw mature women. I think it’s a little bit of a condition which I have. I feel as if my condition is a shared condition among present-day Japanese society.” Aida openly identifies himself and other men in the condition of the pervert, using his experience with that role to point out where the problems lie, not only with the representation of women but the interpretation by men. Some of his non-photographic work tackles this role on a more head on way.
Mariko Mori isn’t featured in the exhibition, her work however has similar values as Aida’s, but instead of removing the context from the subject, Mori adds a signifier too it. The silver suit worn under the school uniform in Mori’s image entitled ‘Love Hotel’ is more important than it might seem at first. Without that silver cyborg suit the image is an open book, depending on the viewer it could connote either positive or negative feelings, it would simply just depict a woman dressed as a schoolgirl in a hotel room, bringing forward the idea of sexual intentions. Add a company logo and it could be a double page spread advertising a ‘Love Hotel’. But by placing that little silver suit in the Mori has created a visual fragmentation piece, forcing us to break the image apart to make us think about why the suit is their in the first place. Whether it be a visual metaphor exploring the search for individuality or a way of discussing the robotic nature of women in a consumerist culture, it doesn’t matter. As long as the silver suit makes you question normality and yourself Mori’s work has achieved it’s goal as an activist piece.
It seems there are photographers trying to break through the suffocation of a ‘superflat’ culture and who are challenging what they see as problems within the society, and not just in regards to the representation of women, Bye Bye Kitty features the work of unique artists who all tackle different problems within consumerism using their medium to create visual impact within the viewer. The two I looked at in detail used the effective technique of manipulating context to provoke change, however their are many other techniques that can be utilised.
As individuals we choose wether to go along with what’s expected of us, enforcing the consumerist value, a world monopolised by a few products, humans becoming cyborg, like mariko mori’s depictions. Or we can use our voice and our talents to confront this, keeping our world dimensional, with layers.
On a personal level the activist work keeps me grounded, It’s probably important to mention and maybe shocking to hear that I am a consumer, hypnotised by Japans colourful advertising. Before doing this project, I was unaware I consumed so much, I was passive, not questioning things I now see as inappropriate. The activist photographers work has forced me to step back and become conscious of my position. Marshal McLuhan once said “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” The activists work is the anti-environment, it takes us out of the water, away from our consumer lives. Then drops us back in, with a more conscious outlook on what we previously accepted as normal.