Saturday, 8 January 2011

Teikoku shônen - art nouveau punk?

I read a comment about Teikoku Shônen (aka Imperial Boy) some time ago: ”I simply love.. So much so, that it breaks my heart a bit to know that I'll never live in such beautiful places.”

Here's a sample of his work (for more, see his web-page)

There's an excellent blog entry about him here: Hunting the Elusive. Below I'm going to quote a few passages from it, while adding my own commentaries. Since I'd like this entry to be something in the way of an inventory of themes that I find in these works, I will treat them under a number of headings: postmodernity and colonialism, nature and history, ecology and junk, and childhood and loss.

Postmodernity and colonialism

"What it really is, is a world without the ideas of minimalism or architectural modernism. It is a rejection of the simple for the complex, the space for the clutter. Roads and buildings are piled one upon the other like space is at a premium." This description is very much to the point. Without stating so explicitly, the statement suggest, I believe, the "postmodern" feel of this world. This in turn might be related to what the author of the blog calls "the unabashedly Japanese feel of his cities". Let me quote again: "This is no steam-punk imagining of European lineage. It is a strictly Japanese or Asian world which manages to look quaint/retro and technologically complex at the same time." Other elements that seem to reflect experiences of Japanese society might include the middle-class feel of these cities and the lack of overt class distinctions. So, is this a variety of techno-orientalism? Maybe, but if that is the case, I think we need to add that techno-orientalism itself is not simply an imaginary construct, but also contains a kernel of truth that is rooted in the way modern Japanese society developed.  

Look for instance at this:

The upper right half of the picture is grey, dominated by a huge-looking concrete bridge across which a tank is being transported. Below it glitters another world of teeming crowds and small-scale commerce. What the picture suggests is a form of colonial economy, in which the modernizing hand of the developmental state is heavily yet insecurely imposed on top of a local, older and more energetical economy. Much like in what economists call Japan's "two-tiered economy", two layers of economic activity seem to co-exist without integration. This colonial economy is also what produced the techno-oriental mix of high-tech and "tradition", which is thus not entirely a fictional construct but reflective of a certain path of state-led modernization.

I use the word "colonial" to describe this economy in order to stress the similarities between Japan and other non-Western countries. The techno-oriental mix of high-tech and premodernity can just as easily be found in Cairo or Abidjan. The gap between intellectuals and the "masses" - a prominent theme in debates in Japan during the early postwar decades and a central concern of intellectuals like Yoshimoto Takaaki - is another manifestation of the same mix. This is a gap we find in many developing countries, in which the efforts of the intelligentsia to connect to the masses are often handicapped both by the latter's indifference and by the allergy of authoritarian governments to a politically active citizenry. Situations that are "colonial" in this wide sense are conductive of a certain kind of postmodern semblance: in countries like this, enlightenment will always seem precarious, almost engulfed by the indifference of things and insignificant in relation to the complex workings of the whole. That Japan is sometimes labelled a postmodern society par excellence is partly explained by this fact. China and other authoritarian late-developers intent on pushing forward with a technological and economical development without popular participation for the masses will probably be great producers of postmodernity.

Nature and history

However, despite the city being the product of a modernization unevenly imposed from above, the city can hardly be said to have an inhuman feel. It can hardly be described as a machine-like and reified "second nature" in which inhabitants are little more than cogwheels. It seems to me that the explanation can be found in the pictures themselves. Looking at them, one has the distinct feeling that state-led modernization is no longer really relevant to the way citizens lead their lives. Although immense energies must once have been poured into erecting the towers, the bridges, highways and buildings, one feels as if all this was a thing of the past, as if all these immense structures had been there since very ancient times - perhaps like rocks, mountains or other geological formations - and that no really disruptive changes could really happen anymore. The changes that do happen - the proliferation of human habitat, small shops and passageways along the contours of these structures - are of another and smaller order, piecemal and improvised, similar to the growth of vegetation on top of slopes, rocks or fallen gigantic trees. This clutter and proliferation, one feels, cannot possibly have been planned or imposed from above.


Part of the nature-likeness of these cities is the sheer abundance of real organic nature in them: vegetation, water, clean air. "His cities are so bright and clean, they're almost an imagining of what technologically-advanced cities would be like without pollution... Wood, plants, trees and greenery are present throughout the cities, and he also has an obsession with waterways replacing roads as conduits".

Why doesn't this nature feel inhuman or oppressive? That's a great riddle (one which I once tried to solve in a book that discussed the "naturalized modernity" in the fiction of Murakami Haruki and other writers and how this modernity differed from the shocking and reified "second nature" of Lukács). Perhaps the best answer is simply to remind oneself that the agents of this nature-like proliferation are human beings - people who, regardless of governments or big organizations - try to arrange a habitable everyday life for themselves by building this or that or putting things here or there according to their needs and tastes, without any thought of the whole.

Let us recall that "history" - the concept usually counterposed to "nature" - is best described as an environment which allows itself to be changed and reshaped by the efforts of people and where one can also see the traces of or imagine the processes of change that has led to the present state. Defined in this way, we may, perhaps to our surprise, discover that things in nature often inspire feelings of history. Plants decay and wither. Forests don't stand still. Today we see moss growing where yesterday there was none. Everything seems pregnant with change which is easily imaginable. These cities are the same. They are nature in which humanity is part, not a nature opposed to humanity. Conversely, the humanity inhabiting it is one which no longer defines itself in opposition to nature. 

As mentioned, the experience of this nature is probably at least partly rooted in real experiences of Japanese modernization. What the pictures confront us with is therefore not solely a fantasy, but also the memory of our own real experiences. If we therefore ask, for instance, whether these pictures are not ideological in a bad sense - i.e. whether they attempt an impossible reconciliation between social forces that are in reality irreconcilable - we should also ask the same question of our own experiences. To the extent that we indulge in, and tolerate, the nature-like semblance of certain cities, aren't we also condoning a certain elision, a certain ideological foreclosure?

Ecology and junk

A word about junk here. I have already mentioned that "class" and segregation seems to have left no traces on the way these cities are organized (this is another difference compared to much cyberpunk fiction). How about waste then? Where would cities like this, if they existed, dispose of their waste? One of Teikoku Shônen's most impressive works depicts an undergrown arcade, according to the caption constructed out of waste materials and junk:

Above I quoted the perceptive statement that these cities seemed surprisingly ecological and lacking pollution. At the same time, I have argued that humanity itself "grows" on these cities in an unplanned way. Am I perhaps too bold if I interpret this to mean that here, where no junk is visible, all is junk? The city itself is made out of junk. Just as nature is no longer excluded, junk too is redeemed and for that very reason no longer appears as junk. If Hell is where all junk ends up, is Hell not exactly for that reason precisely so open, generous and free from exclusion as Heaven really ought to be? Is a junkheap an image of Heaven or Hell?

Childhood and loss

I would say: his pictures are attempts to resurrect the memory of how we once experienced things when we were children or adolescents - when everything looked big, exciting and full of wonder. Isn't this why everything in these cities seems so overdimensioned, so unfathomably complex and convoluted, so endlessly big? Looking at a world like this, who cannot help feeling that everything is beginning anew and that there is so much left to explore?

These pictures, then, not so much dream images of the future as nostalgic, loving flowerings of imagination around things that are disappearing. By watching them, we prepare ourselves mentally for the loss, reassuring ourselves that the best in what we are losing is preserved in them. This is not necessarily good, but the extent to which his images succeed in making us feel this way testifies to their power.

I asked above if these images weren't ideological. That was no more meaningful than to ask whether dreams are ideological. Very few people mistake dreams for reality. What is at stake is rather the desire expressed in the dream.


  1. great job on the article!
    i always felt exactly these things you've described when looking at shonen's pictures, but i could never pinpoint why they have this distinct atmosphere.
    now i know, thanks!


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