High and low culture from Japan

Art of the Hole Dept.
By LANCE GOULD  |  June 2, 2010

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Mascots Mametchi (left) and Anpanman, who is a bun filled with bean paste.

Attention, admirers of quirky kitsch and over-the-top aesthetics: hit PAUSE on that Belle and Sebastian record for a second. Two new books are championing the beguiling and bizarre pop-culture of Japan, already well-known for cosplay, love hotels, poisonous-fish delicacies, and fetishizing just about anything in a plaid skirt. And one of them will show you a side of Japanese street culture not yet even covered by Google Maps' 360-degree cameras.

Next week, Mark Batty Publisher, a New York imprint that focuses on contemporary culture, art, and design, will release Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot and Drainspotting: Japanese Manhole Covers, two intriguing, adorable, and endlessly clever new art tomes. The former zeroes in on the various mascots used by Japanese businesses — from the ancient man Koumon-Sama, who represents Hankoya-san 21 (a shop that issues seals to certify official documents) to the youthful Marin-chan, the character who shills for Sanyo's Sea Story machines (a kind of cross between slots and pinball, according to authors Edward and John Harrison).

I'm somewhat partial to T-UP, a red bird with green-and-yellow sox. "T-UP" is an acronym for "Toyota Used-Car Purchase," and as authors Edward and John Harrison note, "he is based on a phoenix and so represents the idea of rebirth — just like what happens with the cars when they are resold."

Odder still is the subject of Drainspotting, which are the vibrant and intricately detailed manhole covers that are apparently different in nearly 95 percent of the country's 180 municipalities. The manhoru are, according to author Remo Camerota, a national obsession in Japan, and there are more than 2700 custom designs in place.

Many manhoru "evoke a region's cultural identity," notes Camerota, "from flora and fauna to landmarks [and] local festivals." They range from bucolic images of ducks on ponds (Abiko City) to childlike red-and-yellow fairies flying on tulips (Osaka), to a skier careening past local winter flora (Chikuho Iizuka City).

As many mascots are perched high atop urban buildings, these books cover Japanese street culture, both high and low.

  Topics: Books , Japan, Nature and the Environment, Belle and Sebastian,  More more >
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