Beyond Belief (Cubed)


(1) Make-believe (and its paper trail): As I made my way into Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Arts I couldn’t miss the huge foil-like structure lurking outside, playing tricks with the surrounding architecure. A shimmering leaflet (which I thought far more beautiful and alluring than the sculpture itself) explained how the artist, Kimihiko Okada, ‘experiments to change the ways people perceive space with the materials he uses in his art works aside from his work as an architect’.  

The structure we are told is made with a ‘complex and ambiguous geometry, and the object employs a thin, integrated metal membrane’.  The purpose is ‘to reflect rain, wind, and other atmospheric conditions, as well as the movement of the sun, color of the sky, and other quiet changes in the environment’. Laudable aims no doubt, but the harsh light that bounced off the work didn’t really seem to capture necessarily ‘quiet changes’, if anything the crumpled surface seemed only to pull its surroundings into the body of the piece, whilst emitting only white light in exchange. I wouldn’t want to be facetious and ask where the baking tray had got to, but of course the remark hangs there…

I pressed on to the exhibition I’d come to see: Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation. The layout or ‘blueprint’ design was something Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki introduced to the production process of animation films in 1974, when working at the time on the TV animated series Heidi a Girl of the Alps. Unlike actual animation cells, the layout or blueprint is more a schematic of a series of shots and how they will be achieved. Each individual piece of paper gives the relevant informtion of a scene. Against backdrop sketches the key animated elements, particularly characters, tend to be drawn faintly in red. Also written onto the sheets are details of relative positions of elements, direction on actions, indictations on whether or not there will be camera movement and effects etc. Thus, the purpose of the blueprint is to provide an overview of a sequence and crucially is used to ensure a greater sense of unity for a given production. Indeed, the introduction of the blueprint was a direct response to the ever more specialised and divided process of production.


The exhibition presented some 1,300 blueprints for Studio Ghibli films ranging from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to their latest release Pnyo on the Cliff by the Sea (which had opened just at the time I attended the museum). I was half-expecting the sheer overload of images from the films – indeed that was what I got. Room after room with rows and rows of thin pieces of paper on display. Whilst a mixed audience, many were true fans – their faces lighting up as they recognised the films from the drawings on display. There were also a number of young couples. Seemingly it was a place for a date! I can’t say I am a ‘fan’ of anime as such, though I have certainly enjoyed watching the films I have seen. I would be keen to follow up a few lines of interest to do with hybridity as a form of representation and also a link I can’t quite yet articulate but would like to pursue between pictures of ‘floating world’ woodblock prints and the visual array and movement of anime, particularly in Miyazaki’s work. My problem, of course, is that I can’t face having to wade through the existing body of literature; for me it is a ‘body’ and not a ‘field’ of study, the latter would be too open and fluid a description. I left the exhibition feeling a little empty-handed. Nonetheless, from such close scrutiny I marvelled at the ability to conjure up faces, expressions and the flow of clothing from only very simple and few lines. A wonderful art. I also couldn’t help thinking it staggering, not only the sheer number of sheets of drawings (as mere pre-cusors to the films), but also the amount of beautiful detail of the drawings, which were after all only ‘blueprints’. All this paperwork that goes into making an unbelievable world believable!

(2) ‘the price we pay’: I made my way on to Ginza. In particular I wanted to visit Maison Hermès, a building that is clad entirely of glass blocks . R. had taken me there when we had been together in Tokyo, part of the informal – and at times accidental – architectural trail he took me along. Across the street, a number of floors up R. had spotted the scene of a plush, red cafe. We went up there and he took a photograph. This time, however, it was not there, it had been refurbished and made into something far less inviting and certainly not engulfing.

On the top floor of Hermès is their gallery, Le Forum (a tangible manifestation of corporate social responsibility). As I made my way up I saw a lovely wallet on sale. It took me a little while to convert from Japanese yen (I couldn’t quite believe it for a while). The simple, thin wallet was on sale for around £1000, which took my breath away (there would be nothing left to put in it I thought!). I then reached the gallery – doubly out of breath – to encounter an installation ironically titled Leftovers.

The piece was made up of a long line of bamboo leaves, upon which a repeated sequence of food had been laid out. And next to each of the leaves was a sheet of paper with the print of someone’s feet. Whilst all very similar, each ‘place-setting’ was unique, both the footprints and the state of the food. In some cases the food had been spilled and mixed up, but mostly it remained barely touched. A leaflet showed a diagram of each of the food stuffs as representing different things: beauty, culture, hunger, choice, history, future, identity, taste, ‘…..’ and space. Presumably the manner in which the foods had been touched related to thoughts about these different elements. I didn’t read the leaflet until I had left the building, but even if I had, for me the leaves conjured up a sense of rural living, with connotations of limited food supply, yet all counterbalanced by an uncomfortable sense of food having been wasted, as it lay discarded, half-eaten. We are brought to believe/see what we don’t necessarily want to believe/see.

(3) Religious belief: I love subways. I love the mix of life forms (and the way the advertisements are really large, yet seem to just jostle with the to and fro of everything around).

As I waited on a platform for my train – listening to ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson‘ by David Bowie (aptly a line rings out ‘I think I’ve lost my way’) – I was accosted by a band of merry Christians from the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, who told me they were here on a ‘short mission‘ to convert the already converted 1% of Christians in Japan (well that can’t be right, but that was how it sounded). Ironically, it seemed to be the fact that I was not from Japan that prompted them to say hello. “From England, wow!” …on having to admit I was not a Christian (at least not that I know of, and despite its ideology underpinning much of the culture I know), I was asked: “Are you Jewish?” – accompanied with a light pat on my shoulder as if it might be equally difficult to admit; or perhaps, had I been, an acknowledgement of some kind of respect. It was difficult to tell. As we all climbed aboard the incoming train, I felt the best course of action was to say (truthfully, though lacking in all knowledge) that I was ‘interested’ in Buddhism and Shintoism. “…oh okay… I know they have a concept of Nothingness. It makes me think of flat-lining on a heartrate monitor!’. I did my best to explain (but where my ideas come from I do not know) that the concept really refers to an all inclusive interconnectedness (which is not easily translated across to the Ego-based religious concepts typical of the West). The person who had been the one to initiate the ‘hello’ then told me about a wonderful film she had been watching prior to her departure to Tokyo: “…it was about the tea ceremony, you know they have a tea ceremony thing here?  …well it turns out it might be related to the fact that a long time ago Christians had to hide – they were not allowed here”. There was some mention of the sign of the cross in relation to the typical tea house design and of grass left to grow through to hide the said sign. All fascinating I thought. Just as the train was arriving at my stop, I asked after the film title so I could see it for myself, but she couldn’t quite remember. She quickly tried to get her husband’s attention, who was further up the train carriage. He shouted out some director’s name, but I couldn’t quite catch it and then it was time for me to step out. As the automatic doors were about to close the woman grasped the air and said she’d pray for me. I believe(d) her. I am grateful to meet those who exhibit ‘true’ belief, if only because I wonder what it must feel like.

Slavoj Žižek, in his book On Belief, writes of a debate on the Larry King Show between a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Southern Baptist. Both the rabbi and the priest, he explains, ‘expressed their hope that the unification of religions is feasible since, irrespective of his or her official creed, a thoroughly good person can count on divine grace and redemption’. The Baptist, however, ‘insisted that, according to the letter of the Gospel, only those who “live in Christ” by explicitly recognizing themselves in his address will be redeemed, which is why, as he concluded with a barely discernible contemptuous smile, “a lot of good and honest people will burn in hell”‘. The basic premise of his book ‘is that, cruel as this position may sound, if one is to break the liberal-democratic hegemony and resuscitate an authentic radical position, one has to endorse its materialist version’. It is a refreshing commentary, for surely the need to return to issues of faith and belief vis-a-vis ideological critique is vital. However, it leaves me wondering, is Žižek’s pursuit of a ‘materialist version’ of belief (and his ‘mission’ to overturn today’s Empire) going to have to come down to only one ‘authentic radical position’? The near-missed exchange of a director’s name, which momentarily did genuinely interest me, suggests to me something much more ambiguous.


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