Text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I was born in the end of the 1960s and grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Greece during the times of the junta and the “development” of the political change-over that followed it and with a multitude of neo-American influences, mostly from TV; this means that my tolerance to kitsch was quite good. But nothing, Greek or American was enough to prepare me for the ocean of bad taste that washed over me almost from the moment I passed through the Narita airport customs’ office for the first time. The barrage of colors, heterogeneous images, unconnected by any rhyme or reason elements from the 2000 years of Japanese history and Chinese influences and the 500 years of interaction with the West thrown all together on anything the eye met was like a shock wave which certainly ebbed with time but which has never (or at least until now) completely ceased to astonish me.
What I mean, and which is impossible to ignore from the moment you step your foot on Japan goes beyond the stylistic acrobatics of Roland Barth in “Empire of Signs” or their lighter, easier to digest version i.e. the various aspects of orientalism/Japonism –from the 19th century impressionists to “South Park” or “Lost in Translation”- that isolate elements from the Japanese landscape to create a country that is trendily “outwardly”, “crazy” or “cinematic”. It is the complete reality of Japan, the total of the countless details that overwhelm the field of vision –and not just that- almost everywhere you stand. And the Japanese’s indifference towards the, in lieu of a better word, unnatural marriages of motifs and elements, of signs and meanings interwoven at the behest of a concept that no one has adequately explained until now –to me, at any rate.
My take? Something akin to the dwarves-thieves in Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits”: having a less linear understanding of time than the one we generally share in the West, the Japanese borrow from the present –the one they themselves live in or the one of their ancestors- the components they like or they believe contain an essence crucial to their current state of being, individual or collective, and they replicate them in their appearance and their environment. Visitors might cringe at the sight of a Pokemon umbrella in the hands of a kimono-clad young woman or of Mickey Mouse hand in hand with Santa Claus, both dressed in samurai outfits for a Christmas ad of Tokyo’ Disneyland –or at almost all programs on Japanese private TV channels- but like all thing in Japan, this saturnalia of kitsch hasn’t been made for the visitors but by and for the Japanese themselves, like a living photographic album of their collective family; as such it isn’t required to comply to any outside definition of “good taste”.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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