japanese fetish: a primal scream of detail

Japanese graphics.A different language of emotion….

Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com)

I love Japanese graphics. Especially really crappy Japanese graphics. We Westerners look at Japanese stuff and think, “wow! now that is KWALITY!!”. But, the Japanese churn out some real crap, too. Remember when “made in Japan” was a way to put down something? That was a long time ago.

I particularly like bad Japanese graphics. most people would look at this sample I post here and would think, that’s so cool. (especially most graphic designers, who seem to think the Japanese shit gold.) But, to my eye (skillfully trained in decades of research into really bad design techniques) this thing really stinks. It’s terrible. It’s badly drawn, cheaply badly printed, amateurish badly designed, generic and lame in the extreme. It is completely lousy in every way. But, we still think it looks wonderful and way cool. Why is that?

Western graphic designers have a sort of Japanese fetish for all graphic design that comes out of Japan. We even drool on the stuff that really sucks. I think it has to do with the detail. The Japanese aesthetic deals heavily in attention to detail. Even this lousy record cover (a 7″ 45rpm sleeve) spends far more time carefully positioning details than an American graphic designer ever would. Never mind that the details, if you look closely, are badly executed. For example pay attention to the uneven line work, obviously painfully strugglingly hand drawn with a ruling pen and a straight edge – still uneven and crude. attention to detail doesn’t always mean precision craftsmanship.

art chantry:these examples i post have nothing to do with earth tones, tho. the one above is a three-color run (three colors? how did they do that? three times on a one color? 1 1/2 times on a 2-color press? maybe 3/4 pass on a 4-color press? seems like a waste of $$ to me.) it uses black/yel/mag to build up the red/yellow/black. or possibly, it's a three pms (or whatever they had in japan back then. toyo inks?) solid color pressing. but,t hat's the same cost as three solid process colors - PLUS the ink purchase. so, any way you cut it, it's not set up very smart economically, ya know? earth tones, be damned.

In America we tend to place an enormous amount of value on emotional content. When we watch the news, the roving tv reporters attacking a natural disaster or murder scene isn’t happy until they have a tearful relative breaking down on camera. Romance novels and detective thrillers dominate our literary efforts. Political talk feed our ravenous appetite for fear and loathing. Even out artwork is largely valued on “how it makes you FEEL.” It’s all about emotions with us.

Try to spot that in Japan. When you see Japanese folks interviewed at a disaster scene, they seem cool, calm. They DESCRIBE their feelings about what has happened, they do not EXPRESS them. Japanese culture deals with human emotion in a very different way than American culture. We respond to them with fascination. The whole of Japanese culture has been described as an ‘appropriation’ culture – they take ideas and from other cultures and “Japanese” them. In contrast we take enormous pride in innovation and entrepreneurship. The Japanese deeply value fitting in and belonging and structure. It’s almost like our cultures are polar emotional opposites in many ways.

That’s not to say that Japanese are emotionless (like a popular American stereotype might promote). In reality, the Japanese are as emotional and passionate as any human being. My point is that their culture developed in way to express those feelings in very different ways than our own.

art chantry:here's another example of a cheap-o 45 cover from japan. this stinks. absolutely awful. but, we can't help but look at it and think, "man, that's cool!" it's the power of japanese emotional expression through detail.

Think about Japanese music. It sounds flat and emotionless and mechanical

us. They can PLAY rock and roll, but they can’t ROCK. Spot the diff? It almost as if they are studiously executing a style rather than expressing themselves through that style. It’s a subtle but huge difference.

When it comes to art and (especially) graphic design, that comparison holds even more powerfully. Even at our most abstract and segmented (abstract expressionism, for example) our emotions still hold total sway. You can’t look at a Jackson Pollock without reacting with some powerful feelings (i know i sure do.) but, a Japanese abstractionist image is a cold, elemental examination rather than an picture reduced to an emotional outpouring.

So, when we look at this cheezy record cover, we respond to it’s emotional void. It seems refreshing to us, clear, clean, organized, understandable. It seems so utterly under control. It really can’t ‘let go.” And that is the magic of Japanese graphics for us. Obsessive attention to detail as emotional expression. That’s where the feelings enter the picture. It’s like that old Robert Crumb cartoon of a guy writing on chalk board over and over and over , “secession of desire… secession of desire… secession of desire…” the restraint is fully expressed in the details. That restraint and care is extremely passionate. The ornate organizational beauty is (to put it crudely) a primal scream.

I think this attention to detail also derives from the traditions of Japanese writing. It comes from a very different origin from western writing forms. For instance, out letterform evolved from chiseled stone. Our basic letterforms were carved into heavy solid surfaces. in fact the ‘serif’ derived in out letterforms from the finish stoke (one final cleansing whack on the chisel) at the end of deep groove. Think of an “I”. the ends at the top and bottom would likely be rather uneven and rough after the carver has finished with the body of the letter. One tasty impact with a nice sharp chisel and it cleans up into a nice clean hard edge. However, the chisel would often chip a little OUTSIDE of the body stroke. The stone carvers thought it looked nice, and it also tricked the eye into seeing an even cleaner edge that might actually be there. It evolved into those little ‘feet’ we see on the ends of “serif” type.

Japanese letterform construction, however, derived from calligraphy. Brush stokes. It’s a process that allows for much more control and mastery of line than a hammer and chisel in stone. The fluidity and flowing motion used in the calligraphic stroke is soothing and calming (also unlike a violent chisel impact). It also allows for detailed subtleties to act as expression much more immediate and available than stone carving. Basically it’s a system of personal expression at the edges, hidden in the subtle details. The more control you exert, the more expansive the expression. On the other hand, the chiseled letterform (like ours) is immediate and satisfying in way direct and emotional outburst. Completely the opposite.

Our expression is so immediate in our culture, that we have become a nation of “gimmee gimmee…”, immediate gratification and messaging of our surface reactions. The Japanese plan and gratify over a more extended period of time to allow for attention to detail.

One of my favorite examples of where these cultural emotional traditions collide and create utter confusion is when you see Japanese letterforms (entire type fonts) that ignorantly appropriate Western surface aesthetics and add ‘serifs’ to Japanese calligraphic letterforms. It’s confusing and wacky and even a little zany – and you don’t know why. It’s completely confusing and hilarious. Our reaction is mysterious until you understand the subtlety of the mistake. Then we realize why it’s so funny on such an invisible and subtle level.

So, I think when we look at Japanese graphics and the what and how they express feeling to us, what we love is the subtlety that comes along with the culture through which the message in relayed. We Westerners are bold, emotional, immediate and even crude in our expression. That’s what we have learned to value. The Japanese are subtle, controlled, restrained in their emotional expressions, just like their culture evolved and they were trained to do.

Why do we look at even lousy crummy Japanese graphic design and go, “OOOOHHHH….!?” I think we instinctively and “immediately” (even ignorantly) respond to the extremely subtle emotional expression hidden in the details. The Japanese must think we are children.

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