(Images from Superfiction, 2008, Kodak Endura Paper, Roslisham Ismail aka Ise)
EARLIER this year, artist Roslisham Ismail, more commonly known as Ise, presented a body of work entitled Superfiction. This work was the result of a two-week visit to Tokyo, courtesy of the Japan Foundation. Consisting of a video and photo-collage images of Tokyo’s cityscape, it captured the artist’s own emotional collage as he absorbed the sights and sounds of Tokyo for the first time.
As a young boy growing up in Kota Baru, Ise’s first introduction to Japan and all things Japanese was Ultraman, that iconic cartoon series which was a daily fix for so many of us growing up in the 1980s. This early influence found its way into the artistic narrative, with the artist superimposing the figure of the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking superhero into his images. Ultraman hovers like a protective guardian angel over the city of Tokyo. I love the fact that this childhood memory has inveigled itself into Ise’s consciousness and his art as the artist experiences a new city and a new culture.
My first introduction to Japan was in the form of a six-year-old tyrant named Michiko. As the only Japanese girl in Assunta Primary School, she was our token piece of exotica. More importantly she also possessed a collection of Hello Kitty stationery, amassed during her yearly trips back to Japan, which was the envy of every girl in our class.
For the honour of using her stationery, we would have to submit to a series of “favours”. For example, letting her copy our maths homework or letting her have first dibs on the swings. Hello Kitty memorabilia was the obsession of every schoolgirl in the eighties.
This probably explains why thirty-odd years later, on my first trip to Tokyo, I find myself walking into every stationery shop in the city despite being far too old for a cartoon cat pencil box.
Organic and diverse
As I roam around Shibuya in downtown Tokyo, I feel like I’ve walked into my very own version of Superfiction. All around me, amidst the skyscrapers, huge neon advertising, and giant television screens in the skies, hundreds of Japanese commuters are making their way to offices and schools in the city.
There is an incredible intensity and energy in the city. In neighbouring Harajuku, for instance, you will find bars, music clubs, electronic shops, and streetwalk cafes lining the streets. Meanwhile, swarms of teenagers with punk hair, combat boots, and leather jackets, comb the streets like some strange army of goths, making anyone over 23 feel totally irrelevant.
Walk ten minutes down the road, though, and suddenly the cityscape morphs seamlessly into Ometasando Dori, a wide tree-lined boulevard. Here, fashionistas in Hanae Mori and coiffured dogs — pet grooming is a huge business in Japan — sip cappuccino in Parisian-style cafes. They shop for designer brands housed in some of the most stunning modern architecture I have ever seen.
It is also worth exploring the winding backstreets too, to discover quirky cafes, young Japanese designer boutiques, health food shops, and beauty salons. Every shop and cafe on that stretch is unique, combining European designer chic with contemporary Japanese design. The fact that two such different areas exist within a ten minute radius of each other is testimony to Tokyo’s diversity and the way the city has developed organically.
Despite the craziness of city life, people are incredibly polite. There is no unnecessary pushing or shoving and there is a kind of organised mayhem, even at the subways during rush hour. People line up patiently at the platform and when the train arrives, they pour themselves into the carriages. Not an inch of the train is wasted — every available space seems to be occupied by a human body.
Despite the human crush, people still seem to maintain their cool. There are even signs on the train for people to put their mobile phones on silent mode so as not to disturb other passengers – a small but incredibly civilised gesture that perhaps we should implement in Malaysia. Perhaps because space is such a premium in Tokyo, the Japanese have had to work hard to find ways to make co-existing in such close proximity as bearable as possible.
A city on speed
As I am writing this, I am sitting in the hotel lobby watching the staff arrange the flowers ikebana-style in the hotel. What I love about this city is the attention to detail they give to even the smallest things. The way a single flower is placed on a breakfast tray; a gift is perfectly hand-wrapped in a shop; the beautiful symmetry of the sushi lined up in a bento box for lunch. Even visiting a shopping centre is an event, with bowing employees greeting customers as they walk through the doors.
Five days or two weeks – all too short a time to adequately gauge a city or a culture. All Ise and I could hope for was just to absorb the riot of sights and sounds of Tokyo for that brief time with promises to return for a longer visit.
Tokyo in memory and imagination seems almost like a dream. It is a city where the streets blaze with neon energy and whose varied citizens — kimono-clad ladies, sake-soaked businessmen, glamorous executives, trendy punk teenagers — always seem to be on the move. Tokyo is a city on speed — a crazy, schizophrenic blend of culture and contemporariness, as crowded in time as it is in space.
Rahel Joseph has over 10 years art management experience in both performing and visual arts. She is currently employed at a leading contemporary art space in Kuala Lumpur.