Behind the Adoration of Cuteness

by Yukie Kamiya

 

 

The Japanese economy underwent a period of radical growth from the 1960s to the early 1970s, when Japan left behind the darkness of its defeat and poverty. At the same time, the city began to expand towards an ideal of the middle class. The modern practical and uniform housing complexes were being constructed in the suburbs for those who worked in the cities and supported the economy. Here people dreamed of a hopeful future, and the place reflected the taste of the public as the Japanese standard of living.

 

Momoyo Torimitsu was born and raised in the suburbs of Tokyo during this prosperous period. In her work she exposes the reality that the promising future believed in by the suburbanites, including herself during her childhood, is only an illusion. As a means of reconsidering her own background, she reexamines the distortion of fiction and reality that was caused by the desire to escape from the darkness of Japan's past.

 

The motif that Torimitsu deal with originated as an item reminiscent of the social phenomenon of her childhood years. It is an icon symbolizing the period of Japan's rapid economic growth. In her earlier installation, she created an adorable plastic panda. The panda came to the Ueno Zoo, Tokyo, in conjunction with the revival of diplomatic relations with China and was given a fanatical welcome. At a time of restored diplomatic relations with China, where the Japanese repeatedly carried out occupations and massacres, the lovable panda became a tool for casting happiness in order to conceal the tragic history of the past. Torimitsu has looked into the gap between adoration and the darkest part hidden behind it.

 

As the next subject, Torimitsu has taken up the businessman in Japan. " Miyata Jiro" is a truly realistic human robot personifying a typical, middle-aged "salary man". A businessman who earns a salary is called a "salary man" in Japan. Such a man is also called an "enterprise soldier"for dedicating his life to fight for the company. Miyata, dressed in a suit that is the uniform of the businessman, does a perfect imitation of a soldier's moves, creeping forward on all fours. A salary man is also similar to a soldier in his obedience to orders within the organization. In the Japanese social system, the responsibility is divided and eventually no one has it because the privileged ones wield control over each other and maintain the balance of structure. The middle class, who believe in the same values and ideology, are the obedient followers of the system, and the "salary men" are the human league that constitute the core of this distinctive system.1

 

In performance, Torimitsu herself is dressed as a nurse, attending Miyata as he creeps along the street. She changes his battery when the energy is gone so he can keep working as an "enterprise soldier". Torimitsu and Miyata have appeared on Wall Street in New York as well as in business centers around the world, showing this cynical performance. Contrary to the cynical message, Miyata's creeping movement is comical and the serious reality cannot be felt at all from this playful presentation. Being cute is considered the best defense for evading criticism, and by doing so the Japanese avoid touching the dark side of reality. The Hello Kitty character is printed on the lunch boxes of both teenagers and middle-aged women, and figures of comic characters hang from the mobile phones of businessmen. Given the childish taste of contemporary Japanese, Torimitsu overly exaggerates and performs the fact that one loses his opinion in the midst of all the cuteness. She plays with the reality gap hidden behind an optimistic cheerfulness of kitschy items. Ironically, Miyata's moves, representing a soldier, also resemble the crawling movement of a baby.

 

With her new work, Torimitsu focuses even more directly on the cuteness that we accept so unquestioningly.  Entitled "Somehow I don't feel comfortable," it consists of two dazzlingly bright pink rabbit balloons. With their wide-open eyes and projecting teeth, the two rabbits face each other with carefree smiles.  Yet they are blown up to such a size that they have had to be stuffed into the room with their ears bent over their cramped-looking bodies.  Although the scale is different, these shiny plastic "pop" objects are reminiscent of the plastic piggy banks we received at the bank as a free gift when we were children.  Both are cute on the surface but empty inside.

 

A Japanese novelist, Motojiro Kajii has written that "beneath the cherry trees in full bloom lie the buried bodies of the dead."  Even the light pink blossoms of spring can be depicted darkly: when something is too bright,  we are invariably led to the dark side hidden beneath the surface. The kitsch cuteness that Torimitsu stresses here unexpectedly underlines and makes us aware of the weirdness of these rabbits with their cold smiles.  Each balloon is actually nothing more than a wrinkled sheet of plastic blown up with false hopes.  The artist's concept, which may even reflect a hostility toward cuteness, comes across very clearly in her preparatory drawings of "deflated" rabbits.  These balloon rabbits stuffed into a narrow space are not exactly what they seem: we expect to find them cute, but somehow we just don't feel comfortable.

 

Torimitsu also reveals the Japanese people and Japanese society that are controlled by an invisible power with an objective viewpoint. She depicts this society through group pictures of elementary school children taken at various events during an academic year such as field trips, sports days and excursions.

 

Torimitsu did not take this photograph series herself, out of an interest in children as a subject. These were thousands of pictures she found abandoned on the street of the suburbs a few years ago. Although they were photographed to make a memorial album, when we look at the pictures out of context we become aware that children are being controlled by an invisible power. In the pictures they are happily laughing and running, living a fruitful school life. But they are always in a group, maintaining and enjoying this unity. Obviously a parental viewpoint has surfaced through these pictures, which capture the moment of being obedient to the teacher. The children are laughing without any doubt or worries, and enjoying acting as a group. It is as if the children unconsciously understand and obey the way to maintain harmony. By applying a third person's view, Torimitsu clearly presents the cold reality of the Japanese social system which places even children under control.

 

Forgetting about the dark side as well as refusing to put energy into thinking about the darkness has created and maintained an illusion of a bright future filled with hope. But the end to this false brightness has arrived, and the atmosphere in the present society is suffused with a melancholic languor. Torimitsu, who speaks of "creating everything that I dislike,"2 is re-creating the mask placed over the world as a medium for injecting a critical spirit. Her earnest attempt continues to expose the quintessence of the situation in which society finds itself. It must be the sense of mission she feels as a portrayer of the contemporary era.

 

1. Karel Van Wolferen, 'The Enigma of Japanese Power,' 1989, translated edition, Hayakawa Bunko, 1994, pp. 328-329. Karel Van Wolferen, a Dutch journalist who has been living in Japan for 30 years, calls the Japanese social structure a 'system' and objectively applies a detached analysis to the obedient middle class.

2. An interview with the artist, March 29, 2000.