By and  on December 27, 2004

TOKYO — When French fashion designer Lucien Pellat-Finet visits Tokyo, his first impulse is not to hit the ubiquitous shops, but an out-of-the-way knot of contemporary art galleries.

“It’s very fresh,” he said of the photography, painting and sculpture on display. “You cannot compare it to anything else in the world. It’s becoming something very important.”

And how. From art to film to architecture, Japan is looming larger on the global cultural scene, with a unique and cutting-edge voice.

“In film, there are wildly visionary directors and actors here,” said Interview editor in chief Ingrid Sischy, who is preparing a Tokyo issue for spring, photographed entirely by Karl Lagerfeld on location in December. “It’s extremely in the vanguard. Look at how dead Hollywood is. Everyone is looking here.”

Among the Japanese filmmakers making an impact on the world stage are Takeshi Miike, Shunji Iwai and Ryuhei Kitamura, whose genres span drama and fantasy.

Japan is also leading in architecture, thanks to the likes of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Sischy said. It resembles an off-kilter stack of ice bricks.

Asked to account for the ascendant cultural scene in Japan, Sischy cited a greater freedom from the standard — and sometimes hackneyed — pop references that can curb creative expression.

“They might take Patti Smith and David Bowie, but they’ll misquote them and mush it all together,” she said. “We in the West are more burdened. We don’t mix it up in the same way.”

Still, Sischy could not resist an analogy when describing one of the personalities she’s profiling in the Tokyo issue of Interview: 21-year-old actor Ryuhei Matsuda, whom she describes as “the James Dean of Japan.”

Lagerfeld, who before December had last visited Tokyo about four years ago, said he detected a less slavish devotion to Western tastes and ideas. “They’re much more proud of their own identity,” he observed, praising an aesthetic often centered on dolls, toys and fairy-tale imagery.

Pellat-Finet said he first took notice of Japan’s bubbling contemporary art scene when he stumbled across a book in a Los Angeles store featuring the cartoonlike work of Takashi Murakami. He bought a piece and commissioned a mushroom design he put on 1,000 of his cashmere sweaters, long before Murakami applied his colorful aesthetic to Louis Vuitton’s monogram.

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