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0aaljpg2.jpgJPG 2: Japan Graphics, edited by Tomoko Sakamoto. (Amazon USAand UK.)

Editor Actar says: Volume two of ‘JPG, Japan Graphics,’ is a comprehensive survey of contemporary Japanese graphic design and illustration. The changes in Japanese graphic design after the first volume have proved to be far beyond our imagination. Instead of 'more copies, higher resolution, to a wider audience', there is a greater focus on individual and original works. JPG 2 brings together over 20 design teams, showcasing the evolution of teams from the first JPG as well as showcasing new projects, new teams, and the best contemporary design talents.

I'm not an expert in Japanese graphic design and illustration, hence my interest in JPG2. At the end of the day, i'd rather sit down and read about something only vaguely related to my blog. And gosh! did i have fun with that book.

There are hundreds of pages covered with illustrations which means that my brain could (kinf of) switch to pause mode. What makes the volume special and enjoyable is that the editor didn't ask directly to the designers which technical tools they use in their practice, what their background is or sources of influence. Instead, she lets readers discover it in a more subtle way throughout the "Who's Who" chapter and the pages in which designers talk freely about and show images of their favourite place(s). The designers open their doors and we get a glimpse on the way they live, their favourite place, their pets, what they like to eat at lunchtime, who they meet, what they see from their office window, etc. Add to that images of their working space and you get a rapid and intimate snapshot of their everyday life, of what makes them smile or what triggers their imagination.

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By Namaiki

The book is divided into 13 chapters: one explains how photographic images meet graphic design, another is about the way collage of objects and scenes create imaginary landscapes, another part demonstrates how graphic design can be translated into objects, elsewhere one can see how computer-made stain, deformation or bad focus can be give rise to perfectly controlled textures, etc.

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Takora Kimiyoshi Futori

One of the most interesting idea conveyed by the book is that today hand-drawn lines, fabric, hair, even sounds are part of the experiments that prove that digital design is getting closer and closer to the analog sphere, as it is the case with other forms of design or many aspect of life for that matter.

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Wabisabi on the way they live

0plasticultu.jpgPlastic Culture - How Japanese Toys Conquered the World (Amazon USA UK) written by London-based designer and illustrator Woodrow Phoenix

Editors say: Plastic Culture explores the world of toys: why we love them, what they represent, and why there is a growing market for "designer" and "art" toys aimed at adults. In this book, British author Woodrow Phoenix. takes a look at our relationship to toys in the twenty-first century, with particular reference to Japan--an exporter of both merchandise and ideas. Plastic toys based on Japanese comics, movies, and TV shows, from Astro Boy, Godzilla, and Gatchaman, to Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon have had a powerful effect on the imaginations and markets of the West, and have kick-started trends in design and pop culture that have crossed from Japan to the West and back East again.

I bought the book on an afternoon when i was in need of easy and shallow reading. But it proved to be much better than i expected.

The author argues that the current fascination for designers toys/urban vinyl is not about regression or infnatilism. It's a mix of a "journey from wishspace to reality", an object that triggers memories and as such it becomes a part of its owner, cultural objects shaped by the values and obsessions of the society that produced them and have recently become art pieces of a new genre. Designers vinyls are now sold in limited editions, snapped up by collectors and are exhibited in art galleries.

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Ultraman toys from the '70s and Garon vintage tin wind-up by Osaka Tin Toy

The book takes a look at the history of plastic toys, starting with the post-WWII period and the first plastic dolls manufactured by Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. Along with generic toys (trains, farm sets, teddy bears, etc) the biggest sellers were dolls modelled on film stars, comic book characters and later on science-fiction (robots, flying saucers, ray guns, etc.) then tv programs.

Later on came character merchandising and mascots created to attract customers and entice them to buy more of a given product. The best example of the phenomenon being breakfast cereals packets of the '50s and '60s. McDonald's has understood the potential of giving away free toys with their Happy Meal menus. They started as early as 1977 and the success of the scheme has turned the fast food giant into one of the largest distributors of toys in the world.

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Choco-eggs

The role of TV and character merchandising in disseminating culture was very important in Japan as well but the phenomenon of plastic toys took a more exciting turn in the '80s, the decade when the word otaku started to get used in the country. Phoenix examined (a bit superficially imho) the social background of otaku and the emergence of "garage kits." In the beginning of the '80s young enthusiasts started making reproductions of characters from old animes, manga and special-effect movies first for their own use then they opened a studio at Kaiyodo. In 1999 though Kayiodo broke through the otaku barrier when they collaborated with confectionary company Furuta to produce the Choco Egg, each of the chocolate egg contains a limited-edition miniature model of an animal. The success was so big that Choco Egg speciality stores opened and fans started to trade duplicate or rare models.

After the long introduction on the history of toy culture for adults, the author proceeds by spotlighting several of the most famous designers of urban vinyl: starting with Michael Lau and Eric So who customized standard GI Joe action figures and turned them into either "gardeners" or Bruce Lee figures. Bounty Hunter, Presspop Gallery, Junko Mizuno, etc.

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My sweet dog pull toy by Yoshitomo Nara and Murakami plushes

The most fascinating chapter for me was "The Toy as Art". Takashi Murakami's view in particular. He believes that his plushes and figurines work both as fine art and toys, adding that the consumer groups for these will be different, "but it is the same aesthetic form in the end. And i would like it if these consumer groups were one and the same." A confusion further increased by the fact that some of his sculptures actually had their toy form first, not the other way around. Toys are just another way to bring art in the life of everyone: "Art does not habe to be in a gallery. It does not have to cost thousands of dollars. It does not have to be elitist. It can be entertaining, and available."

0blyyyyyyyyth.jpgI was also glad to read the history of the Blythe doll. I discovered them a few years ago on a postcard. The doll had huge green eyes, jet-black hair and porcelaine skin just like my friend Caroline whom i miss a lot since she fell in love with a surfer and moved to Biarritz. The doll was launched in the US in 1972. Her eyes change color by pulling a cord at the back of her head. Children found her too scary and production stopped. In 1997, Gina Garan started using a 1972 Blythe to practice her photographic skills. She took the doll everywhere with her and took hundreds of photos. In 2002, Gina published her first book of Blythe photography, This is Blythe. Later that year, Hasbro gave the rights to make Blythe dolls to Takara of Japan. Blythe was used in a tv commercials in Japan, its re-vamped version was marketed to adults and became an instant hit. Success in Japan led Blythe back to the U.S.

This month there was an exhibition of Blythe dolls dressed by designers at the Galeries Lafayette in Berlin)

More toys: Girltron that mix doll parts and transformer-style toys to create a new species; Tickle Me Elmo vibrating coat; Modified Toy Orchestra makes electronic music that derives from the modification of toys; and the magnificent Ken Stelarc.

0lovingdamachi.jpgLoving The Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots, by Timothy N.Hornyak (Amazon USA and UK.)

Publisher's blurb: While U.S. companies have produced robot vacuum cleaners and war machines, Japan has created warm and fuzzy life-like robot therapy pets. While the U.S. makes movies like Robocop and The Terminator, Japan is responsible for the friendly Mighty Atom, Aibo and Asimo. While the U.S. sponsors robot-on-robot destruction contests, Japan's feature tasks that mimic nonviolent human activities. (...) What can account for Japan's unique relationship with robots as potential colleagues in life, rather than as potential adversaries?

I've been looking for a book that answers that question for quite some time now.

Let's divide the book in two parts and start anti-chronologically. The second part is dedicated to the country's current state of robotic technologies, and what the future holds. If you only expect to discover new robots, you will be disappointed: we've all read about the like of Murata Boy the cyclist, Actroid the booth babe and Tomotaka Takahashi's super cute Neon in blogs such as the one where Hornyak documents his latest findings about robots. But that shouldn't stop you. What you won't find in blogs are information and quotes taken from conversations that the author had with today's robot engineers and experts.

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What fascinated me most in the book was the first half of it, the one that looks at Japan's historical connections with robots, in particular its "karakuri" tradition and the influence that manga characters have had on the public's imagination.0aakarakur.jpg

Just like our Western automata, Karakuri were made to entertain and create a sense of wonder. The author argues that unlike their more sophisticated Western counterpart the Japanese automata were regarded more as dolls than machines. The aim was not to achieve realism but to charm the audience, it was art for its own sake rather than the advancement of science. It all started during the Edo period, when Japan was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Around 1662, a businessman named Takeda Omi opened an amusement park which quickly became famous for the theatre performances that starred automats as well as puppets and human actors. The mechanisms of the dolls were carefully hidden behind their kimonos and delicate smiles. Much of their technology owe much to the Western guns and clock-making know-how introduced in the country before the sakoku, the national seclusion period that would last some 250 years.

Recreating dolls would be impossible were it not for the Karakuri Zui, a treatise on "Illustrated Machinery" written in 1796 by Yorinao Hosokawa. The engineer, artisan and inventor described in three volumes how to make four kinds of wadokei clocks and nine types of mechanical dolls, including a famous boy which courteously serves tea to guests while nodding the head.

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The Yumihiki Doji aims his bow

Another Estern influence on Japanese robotics was Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the play that gave its name to robots. However, it might well be Mighty Atom/Astro Boy who left the biggest imprint in Japanese minds when it comes to robotics. Osamu Tezuka's character embodies the belief that robots can not only be friends with human beings but might also be the country's salvation. An idea that shouldn't be underestimated, especially if you think that the manga hero was born in the mind of a young medical student who was deeply affected by fire-bombed Osaka during WWII. According to Nagoya University robotics professor Tohio Fukada, the desire to create a robot like Atom exists among Japanese roboticists in varying degrees.

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Astroboy by Hiroshi Araki, 1993

Astro Boy gained recognition in Occident as well. In particular in 2004 when he was inducted into Carnegie Mellon University's Robot Hall of Fame. The jury decided that Astro Boy deserved the title for being "the first robot with a soul."

The book keeps on with a look into the legacy of other popular characters such as Ironman No. 28/Gigantor (which might soon get its own statue in Kobe), , Mobile Suit Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, etc. And also the Mecha, walking robotic vehicles controlled by a pilot. My favourite was Grendizer or in french as Goldorak with his fulguro-poings and missiles gama. Il traverse tout l'univers aussi vite que la lumière. Qui est-il? D'où vient-il? Formidable robot des temps nouveaux. I never missed an episode of the series, had all the gadgets (or stole them from my little brother), and had a ridiculous crush on Actarus its pilot.

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There's one really annoying thing about that book that pops up once in a while: the style. Most of the time it's ok, usual essay style, nothing to complain about and who am i to give lessons of writing style anyway? But here and there appear some paragraphs that seem to be taken from a cloying novel, i don't know what motivates these grandiloquent endeavours but they really weaken the otherwise compelling "plot".

Related: Where Anime and Art Meet: Gundam Exhibition, From Anime Center to Manga Museum, Robots. Better than people?

In February, Bibi started a daily blog with videos of films, ephemeral, vintage commercials, animations, cartoons, series and short films public domain, and videos that aren't in public domain, but which can be shared. There are a few gems in there but here's my rather inappropriate choice for Easter break.

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The Street Fighter is a 1974 martial arts film known for being the first film to receive an X rating solely for its violent content. Would a 2007 eye would be appalled by the violence of the movie and its sequel?

Starring Sonny Chiba who played Hattori Hanz? in Kill Bill.
Image.

ICC in Tokyo is currently running an exhibition called OpenSky2.0, which showcases various artifacts relevant to Kazuhiko Hachiya's ambitious ongoing project with its ultimate goal of developing a personal "flying machine."

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Hachiya's previous works include Inter Dis-Communication Machine, Seeing Is Believing, AirBoard (a jet-powered skateboard) -- to name a few. He's also the creator of PostPet, a popular email client application in which Kawaii digital pets take care of email messages.

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The sky so far seems to be a "closed" space in which "end-users" cannot easily participate in. Imagine an "open" sky in which anyone can fly freely -- it would be so nice -- but making it actually happen would be extremely difficult. The OpenSky project started in 2003 and, so far, a flying machine was designed, a half-size radio-controlled prototype was built, a full-size aircraft was built and tested. It is being integrated with jet engines and the plan is to test the next version of the flying machine with a person on board. The exhibition will last till March 11.

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