Nov 1, 2009

The Japanese Total Design Idea

My conception of Japanese Society has been shaped mainly by films. For images of the traditional, rule-bound, society of aesthetes, there were Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant films, set in the age of the Samurai. To get the essence of a rapidly modernizing society that still retained its gentle traditional core, I saw Yasujiro Ozu, especially his masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). For an outsider’s view of contemporary Tokyo, there was Wim Wenders’s Tokyo-Ga (1985); and for an insider’s conception of a fantasy Japanese world, there is, of course, Hayao Miyazaki. But to find an object that encapsulated all these ideas in one compact envelope of cuteness was completely beyond my expectations.

When I entered the Sanrio store on 42nd Street in New York, I was prepared to encounter a cult that I did not understand. Sure, I have little cousins who have Hello Kitty lunch boxes, and who tote tiny pink Hello Kitty bags, but I could not conceive how people of all sizes, ages, and genders found something they liked on shelf after shelf of Hello Kitty madness. Yet, there they were: picking out not just toys and stationery, but laptop cases, iPhone covers, and even rear view mirrors with a mouthless Kitty saying ‘Hello!’ to them.  I joined them, scanning every item, not willing to believe that anything in all this madness could possibly appeal to me. But on a shelf right near the entrance to the store, I found it: a Hello Kitty Dairi-bina.

The Dairi-bina consists of dolls of the Japanese Emperor and Empress, dressed in full regal attire, with all the attendant paraphernalia, seated on a platform. This piece is, more often than not, a family heirloom that is brought out for display on Hina-Matsuri: the Japanese Festival of dolls. The Dairi-bina has pride of place in the festival, occupying a place of prominence in the exhibit of dolls that Japanese girls create for the festival. The dolls are representative of the Imperial court from the Heian period, and must be historically accurate in all details of costume.

Make no mistake, the Hello Kitty Dairi-bina is authentic in all things but one: the Emperor and Empress are both Kitty! And Kitty does a very good job in the double role. Her beatifically expressionless face becomes stunningly imperial when she dons the appropriate robes. She needs no extra make-up: her skin is already the required shade of white. And she makes an excellent cross-dresser: all she has to do is lose her pink bow, and the inherent androgyny of felines helps her become a very male emperor.

This makes for such an intriguing, shape-shifting object: something right out of a Miyazaki film. The old order is the new, the new takes over the old, and somewhere there is a gaggle of Japanese girls who are perfectly comfortable with this ambiguity, and who will crown their display of dolls this year with a Hello Kitty Dairi-bina. Some die-hard American fan of Kitty will buy this, because in this one object Kitty is unmistakably, unshakably Japanese. Collectors of curiosities will love it, for what could be more symbolic of popular Japanese culture today, than the crowning of Hello Kitty as Emperor?

The Japanese, it seems, do nothing half-heartedly: making tea becomes High Art, folding paper becomes Sculpture. If they must make swords, they must be the best. If there is a philosophy of perfection and excellence, it must be carried through to the smallest object and the simplest act. When translated to design and branding, this compulsion becomes a maniacal form of creativity, what I call the Japanese Total Design Idea: if one thing can be Hello Kitty, how can I turn everything into Hello Kitty? This Idea can have a flipside, and I found it at Muji.

Muji is the mass-produced, modern, design manifestation of the High Japanese aesthetic. Their products have an appealing aura of rationality and functionalism. Everything is designed only as much as it needs to be. It is made only of the materials it needs, and it only has the features it needs to have. There is no concession anywhere to extravagance or whim. Everything agrees with our preconceptions of an earlier, ordered, sophisticated Japan: one that probably no longer exists.

For all that they exude this air of purity, Muji’s products manage to be surprisingly insightful and human. The paper and fabrics have rough tactile surfaces, the ceramics are translucent and delicate. Little needs are taken care of: there is a tiny portable washing board available, to help wash your delicates in the hotel bathroom sink. But amidst this smorgasbord of efficiency was one whimsical object that disappointed me miserably: the City in a Bag.

The City in a Bag has been widely acclaimed as a designed souvenir. When you buy Tokyo, London, Paris or New York in a Bag, you get a white cotton bag containing pinewood blocks that are little models of prominent city landmarks.  But the idea of simplification has been carried a bit too far, and it is debatable whether these are delightful miniatures or gross simplifications. The Statue of Liberty block looks more like Lisa Simpson, The Chrysler building has lost its characteristic crown, and the Guggenheim is reduced to three fat discs piled on a slat of wood.

If this is a toy for children, there is no added meaning in the blocks being famous icons: kids these days can access much more informative photographs and models. The blocks have a false sense of scale, too: the cars that come with them in the bag are completely out of proportion. Yes, kids will play with them, but only because kids will play with all oddly shaped wooden blocks. The fact that it is a City in a Bag is more for the edification of the adults who watch them. The City in a Bag is not a particularly great souvenir for the adults either, unless they are Muji enthusiasts. Souvenirs should be full of character, or have that little personal story that makes you reminisce nostalgically about your travels. The City in a Bag is a trick of Japanese simplicity that Muji has pulled out of its bag, and serves mainly to elicit the response, “Oh, that’s so Muji.”

In his films, Miyazaki often visualises grand catastrophes that will wipe out an entire civilization, and I often imagine his fantastic stories coming true. If Japan and all other evidence of its culture were to suddenly vanish off the face of the earth, or if the Japanese advance so much that they bundle everything else into a space ship to inhabit an alien planet, I will feel very sorry for everybody whose only memento of Japan is Tokyo in a Bag. They would have been so much better off buying the total design signifier of all things Japanese that is the Hello Kitty Dairi-bina.

This piece was written for Karrie Jacob's Urban Curation class.

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