Karaoke Box Autumn

Amitai Ben David, Karaoke Box Autumn, 1999. 170 x 170 cm, Oil on Canvas.

The painting Karaoke Box Autumn was created in 1999. The painting is a collection of impressions of the encounter with the Japanese culture, woven into a single image; a 'cocktail 'of impressions that reveals my wonderment and confusion in confronting the complexity of the Japanese culture; my attempts to define it and to place myself in it.

The painting describes a group of Japanese youth playing the Western game of Twister in a room decorated with screen painting in the rakuchuu rakugaii style of the Momoyama period (c.1600). The painting appears, at first glance, joyful and festive; the central figure is cheerily smiling , and so are most of the figures that surround him, leisurely sited in the bright interior. The screens decoration suggests grandness, the splendour of Japan's Renaissance. The golden clouds are hiding and revealing lush green mountains. On the right hand side of the screen, a procession of high-ranking Shinto priests and royals is visible. Yet, a closer inspection of the work reveals submersed elements and emotion of a lesser joyful nature. The Tatami floor is old and torn, the left screen is placed wrongly on its head, the painting colour range and combinations are 'loud'. Some of the dominant colour fields, such as the main figures green shirt or the rear figures blue trousers are cheap, synthetic like tints, lacking any subtlety or elegance. The general feeling of the painting's colour combinations, that at first appear vivid and joyful, tend to irritate, are displeasing and over-sweet. Furthermore, the female figure's expression is subdued, low-spirited, her face colour is greenish, ill-tinted, while the main figure's wide smile, appears after more careful observation, somehow hollow and forced, and, in contrast to his clownish face colours and shiny white teeth, a haze of insecurity can be detected, an uncertainty and despairing attempt to please.

The Encounter with Japan

One of the distinctive aspects of Japanese cultural reality is the coexistence of the contemporary and the traditional, and the parallel continued development of both realities. This is unlike the general linear cultural development in the West, where the traditional clears way for the contemporary, and the historic experience is limited to the museum realm.
In Japan, new traditions do not necessarily cancel the old. One feels sometimes as if the whole historical heritage of Japan has kept itself intact, present and effective. In 1999, on a visit to Kyoto, I was lodging in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), in the proximity of Kyoto's movie-land, an area where many of Japan's Samurai Soaps are filmed. Strolling in the area I passed by a small corner café, where inside I noticed among other patrons, a man dressed in an Edo period costume, wearing a samurai hairstyle (partly shaven) wig, and enjoying a glass of beer; most probably an actor on a short break between shooting scenes in the nearby studios. Somehow, the presence of this 'Samurai” felt very natural, as so many elements of this man's 'time zone' were present all around, such as the temples, the shrines and the gardens of his youth, even his emperor's dynasty was still in power, so why should I be surprised to encounter this samurai at the corner cafe?

The classic Japanese traditions were the primary reason for my move to Japan. Prior to my arrival, the idea I had of Japan was rather romantic, and was mainly based on fictional cinematic imagery creations, compositions created by film makers such as Akira Kurosawa and Ozu. One can find Kurosawa's Japan in Tokyo's streets, in the Public baths of Yanaka, in the wrinkled faces of Ueno's homeless community and the back street nomiyas (neighbourhood bars) of Shinjuku. Ginza's Wako department store, and Harumi street could still serve as a fine setting for Ozu's creations. However, upon my actual arrival to Japan, I soon enough realized that my ideas of Japanese culture were very incomplete, and when exposed to Japanese commercial TV and Tokyo's popular culture, I was introduced to another face of Japan's cultural 'persona' a face which has offered me diversion and amusement, along with strong feelings of confusion and resentment.
Although every culture contains its 'high' and 'popular' divisions, categories that often feed each other and create the cultural whole, I found in Japan, the polarizing of the two tendencies to be remarkably extreme. My confusion could have originated in the romantic ideas that I had of Japan, but nevertheless I could not bring together the extremities of the two, where in one side, one is offered the fine premeditated lines of traditional aesthetics, and on the other, the racket and the disarray of the street. The timid, elegant ways of the language contrast with the careless treatment of the Other, especially of woman, in the popular media.
Often I have found the gender relations issue, as it was handled in the popular media (the major information channel for foreigners) to be very confusing and disturbing.
Naturally, the expressions of gender relations in the popular media, reflect only certain tendencies and do not define the whole complex issue of Japan's gender relations. Yet, these expressions are strongly manifested and call for consideration.
Growing up on the rigid moralistic values of the Jewish/Christian tradition and the decisive ideas of European feminist emancipation, I have found the popular media's treatment of gender issues confusing; I was presented with the tempting option of indulging my male chauvinistic leanings, an option that was in constant conflict with my morals and ideas.
Karaoke Box Autumn reflects very much these conflicts; it's title refers to the November 1998 rape of a young woman by five members of Teikyo University's rugby team, a rape that took place in one of Tokyo's Chuo Ward Karaoke clubs, and held the media's attention at the time when Karaoke Box Autumn was created. Although I was trying to distant myself from the Twister players group, and tried to describe the scene from a Director's seat, or more correctly, the judge's seat; I continued to recognize my own image in the main figure's features. Regardless of repeated attempts to distinguish myself from the scene, and various changes that I have brought to the main figure's features, his resemblance to me remained obvious, and forced me eventually to admit that the painting, rather then serving as an observation of the Other, of the Japanese realm, is an act of self observation.

A foreign man tries to chat-up a Japanese girl, Johnny Walker Party, Tokyo 1998 (Photo by the author)

By Amitai Ben David. Extract from the doctoral dissertation: "Fruitful Incoherence; The next village, a personal expedition"
All contents © Copyright Amitai Ben David 2006-2009. Website by Almost Daily.