Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ukiyo-e and the Tan Tartan Mystery

I went to the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art the other day. Ukiyo-e is one of the most famous forms of Japanese art, and everyone has seen them. Here's a description of ukiyo-e from Wikipedia:

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵), "pictures of the floating world", is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries, featuring motifs of landscapes, the theatre and pleasure quarters. It is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan.

Ukiyo, meaning "floating world", refers to the impetuous young culture that bloomed in the urban centers of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto that were a world unto themselves. It is an ironic allusion to the homophone term "Sorrowful World" (憂き世), the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release. The art form rose to great popularity in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second half of the 17th century, originating with the single-color works of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink was used, then some prints were manually colored with a brush, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of polychrome printing to produce nishiki-e.

Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were meant for mainly townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared. Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e prints. Artists and publishers were sometimes punished for creating these sexually explicit shunga.

Here's some examples:

These two are by my favorite, Hokusai. Really famous.

I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside the museum itself, but the exhibition was cool. Many of the pieces were on loan from the Musee Guimet, and the cool part was the reunion of his famous Tiger and Dragon scrolls, which were meant to be viewed together but hadn't been in the same room for most of their existence:

We had to remove our shoes to go up to these scrolls, as they were in a case that had to be viewed while kneeling on tatami mats. It really added to the experience, showing reverence for these great masterpieces. Much better experience than seeing, say, The Mona Lisa at the Louvre, where one has to queue up for miles and quickly file past the (in my opinion, overrated) piece which was behind several inches of bullet-proof glass.

Anyway, most of the pieces were supremely beautiful, except maybe the sumo wrestlers, so I was really surprised to see these two pieces near the end of the exhibit, also by Hokusai:

I found many other super-creepy works in the books in the gift shop, so I guess demons and ghosts were popular subjects also. No one does horror quite like the Japanese, as many have seen in the recent deluge of Japanese horror movies like Ringu (also well-redone by Hollywood) and The Grudge (badly remade).

As I said, I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside, but I did take this one outside as I was waiting in line to go in (about half and hour):

I just liked the lines. Anyway, while I was waiting, I noticed someone wearing a bit of Tan Tartan. Now, I'd noticed this particular color of tartan on many people since I've been here. Mainly, I'd seen it on the scarves of schoolgirls, and I'd wondered if it was a school-uniform thing. But then I noticed it on other people. It was really prevalent. So, I decided that I would see how many people I could find on this trip to Harajuku who were wearing this particular tartan. As you can see, there were a lot. The first two were in line with me, and the rest were out in Harajuku and the last, on the bus on the way home.

I don't know what's up with the Tan Tartan. Why not red? Or green? And why is it everywhere? A true fashion mystery.

Lastly, here's a picture of M&D's buddy Min-suk, and the fancy cake he brought over to our house. I think it's really cool that guests always bring something to eat or drink, even if it's just for a 'playdate.' On the other hand, that means I have to remember to pick something up if I go over someone else's house. I will have to do that on Friday (provided M is over his cold and none of us get it), as we have been invited for a Korean evening at the Moons'.

This is Min-suk's ridiculously cute-n-chubby baby sister:

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Doll and Toy Museum


There are a lot of museums in Tokyo and Yokohama. This is my first so far, but I plan on visiting a lot more. I'd been meaning to go to the Yokohama Doll Museum since we moved here. I'll admit it: I like dolls. Not baby dolls or those creepy giant-eyed dolls fom the 1960s, but old ones and ones dressed in high fashions. They are so amazing, those ornate dresses in miniature, with all the tiny details of lace, ribbon, buttons, and accessories. And I've always loved old things. They give me a little chill that I've never been able to really explain to anyone to my satisfaction. I've always liked antique shops, and old houses with seldom-explored attics and basements. It's almost like I can feel the residues of long-dead personalities clinging to the objects they touched. That, and they just spent more time on crafting things before our disposable plastic age. No one will collect plastic 2-liter Diet Coke bottles or IKEA furniture, but antique furniture and old glass medicine bottles are still nice to look at, and they last a hell of a lot longer. You can see the care for the aesthetics. What's wrong with making something beautiful as well as functional? That whole 'they just don't make them like they used to' adage is true, but it has become something my generation really has no right to say. By the time we were kids, functional and throwaway was the rule.

But I digress. I went to the Doll Museum, and while it was smaller and less extensive than I was hoping, it was still pretty cool. I have a feeling I wasn't supposed to take pictures, but I turned off my flash and waited until the wandering curators/security types were otherwise occupied before snapping.

The first room was for dolls representing different nations. I especially liked the Indian ones and the Indonesian ones. The fabrics and colors are lovely.

This is the Croatian set. I owned this set! It was given to me by a Hungarian friend, so I always assumed they were Hungarian. I guess I was wrong. I have since lost the male, but I still have the female.

I have always been kind of creeped out by African art. It used to give me the shivers to walk around the African mask room at the Cleveland Museum of Art (one of the best art museums in the world, believe it or not. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up with it). I'm not sure why this stuff is scary to me. Primitive and folk art from other areas of the world doesn't have the same effect. It just seems extra primitive and violent or something. I'm not sure.

This set represents the United States (and one Canada). I thought it odd that the dolls chosen to represent my culture are examples of traditions we white people have either tried to wipe out or have relegated to kitsch. Should we instead have cowboy hats and gangsta rags? I don't feel these dolls represent the American majority, and I wondered whether it is the same for all the other nations. Are all the 'traditional costumes' those of mostly-exterminated minority cultures?

In the next room was a historical collection. I thought this one had a very Mae West face, though not the figure:

These two were in the 'Automata' category, which I guess means you wind them up and they do something. I wished I had been able to read the descriptions. I can't believe people gave their kids stuff like this. My kids get plastic and still manage to wreck it in a week.

This is a really ornate 'doll house,' though I'm sure it was off-limits to the grubby hands of little girls. A woman who worked there gave me a lovely explanation, but all she translated for me was chiisai (small), which was one of the only words I actually understood, so it was pretty much wasted on me. Sigh. It was really neat, anyway.

The rest of it was mostly old toys.

Like the Hoop Zing Girl and Mr. Scary Skullyface:

Mr. & Mrs. Astroboy. I didn't realize how old he was, or that he had a female counterpart:

Some of these look like old comic strip charcaters to me:

One room was devoted to the private collection of one guy, at least I think that's what it was. It was amazing, the amount of stuff in this collection, all kinds of pop-culture stuff and trappings of eras gone by. I'm guessing it represented a 19202-1950s timeline. There were tons of posters, a mind-boggling collection of tins, matchbooks, cosmetic containers, tin watch boxes, advertisements, perfume bottles, etc., mostly in an art deco meets Japanese aesthetic style (which actually had a huge impact on the Art Nouveau and Deco movements, anyway).

My favorite poster. Who knew ink could be so alluring?


Cards: Lots of naked chicks inviting you to their bars and clubs and cafes:

This mannequin was standing in the corner, I assume because she was vintage. I thought she was rather eerily life-like:

Cool tins. I'm not sure what for:

More cool tins, for Shiseido soap. So beautiful. I need some of these.

I adore old visions of The Future. Like Metropolis and Buck Rogers comics. Where everyone has a ray gun and a fishbowl helmet and creepy robots made of tin cans menace society.

Spooky nationalistic kids marching:

Yea, Betty! and friends. I love the old cartoons, too. So surreal and un-PC. and why is Mickey Mouse so representative of Disney? When's the last time they made a Mickey Mouse movie? He shows up on everything here, especially clothes.

There were a lot of action figures, for lack of a better term, for products like candy and other food companies. I guess they have been doing the merchandizing thing for awhile.

The Milky girl: still a common site in Japan today, and she hasn't undergone a makeover like the Campbell Soup kids did or Betty Crocker.

Sambo-like guy as a cook hanging out with his buddies the butler-birds and happy baby bunnies:

I liked this guy's collection so much that I bought a book in the gift shop. It has inspired some painting ideas. I can't read it, but I can look at the pretty pictures.

There were some modern dolls on the first floor, by modern doll artists. I find most modern dolls weird, because they usually try to give them either more human faces or highly stylized ones, with GREAT BIG EYES or mouths like the main characters in The Dark Crystal. I guess I like my doll-faces idealized. Anyway, here are a few I thought pretty.

A ghostly white one:

And her black-clad counterpart:

I just liked this one's hair. She was for sale in the giftshop. If I ever have long hair again, and I'm thinking about it (really passively, i.e., not cutting my hair), I want to do it like this once:

I know a lot of people think dolls are creepy. Mostly I don't find them so, but this one did haunt me a little. It's the eyes. I kept expecting her to blink:

Sorry to all those who think dolls are creepy or just stupid. Or whose illusions about me that I have shattered. Yeah, I like dolls.

Friday, January 19, 2007


There are many different things to get used to in Japan, obviously. One of them is door-to-door solicitation. A disadvantage of being a stay-at-home mom is dealing with answering the door to people who have a catalog of magazine subscriptions in their hands and a prepared spiel that I can't understand. Or the guy in coveralls and a broom in his hand. I think he wanted to sell me house-cleaning service. Door-to-door salesmen are bad enough, but add to that the fact that I can't understand most of what they are trying to tell me, and I have to interrupt with wakarimasen, gomen nasai (I don't understand, so sorry). I couldn't buy what they were selling even if I wanted to. At least I can play the gaijin card, so they don't try too hard.

Yesterday, tho, as I was about to wakarimasen my way out of another spiel, the guy handed me a bag of products. "Sample," the guy got out of his mouth. And "one week." I got to answer wakarimasu! Arigato, this time. I can't read the catalog he gave me, but I do get to enjoy samples of milk, yogurt, and vegetable juice. At least, I think it's milk and yogurt. They have cryptic numbers and letters on them, so they could be secret chemical formulas that will make me taller or give me super-powers or something. I guess D will find out, because I put one in his lunch today. I'll scrutinize him when I pick him up after school and see of he looks different.

And speaking of cryptic, I purchased a sesame seed grinder (yummy on ramen) at the Ramen Museum. I have no idea what "Slicky-N" means and what is has to do with sesame seeds, but it works great.