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.
On a recent Saturday, dozens of trendy young women took time out from shopping to visit the Tomio Koyama and Taka Ishii galleries here, which are tucked in a desolate industrial area not far from Ginza’s pulsating sidewalks. On display in a basement annex were stunningly detailed, dreamlike paintings by Masako Ando, depicting boys and girls with insects, birds and flowers.
Tsuyoshi Kawata, a trends commentator in Japan, said the presence of young women in remote galleries is a sign of how popular contemporary art has become in Japan. He drew a parallel to “Ukiyoe” in the Edo period in Japan, which is sometimes called the first pop culture.
“It was drawings of actors and actresses at that time, and popular among ordinary people on the street,” he explained. “It gained a high reputation among art people in Japan after they were exported overseas.”
Kawata said contemporary art is experiencing a surge at home, partly because of the international recognition of artists like Murakami. “By the way, Murakami is famous for the super-flat technique that was also used for Ukiyoe many years ago. What a coincidence,” he added.
It has been a watershed year for Japanese culture, with exports projected to exceed imports for the first time. In 2003, export of culture-related items amounted to 1.578 trillion yen, or $15.17 billion at current exchange, up 6.8 percent from 2002 and more than triple what it was in 1991, according to statistics from the Marubeni Research Institute.
Institute director Tsutomu Sugiura said animation — known as anime in Japan — remains a key focus of activity, and a national passion.
“In designing a robot, for instance, Japanese people don’t think it’s a simple machine, but something that has a spirit within it,” Sugiura said. “Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka is one example.”
Tatsuya Noda, an editor and commentator covering Japan’s music scene, said it, too, is on the rise, with Japanese songs dominating the top 10.
“Partly this is because of the difference in language,” he said. “Most of the Japanese don’t understand English lyrics. But these days, there are more Japanese musicians who successfully put the Japanese lyrics on the Western rhythm, including rap music, and those songs grab the Japanese young people both by lyrics and rhythms.”
On the club scene, among the most popular figures are Tomoyuki Tanaka of Fantastic Plastic Machine; and Tokyo-born DJ Krush, famous for his dance-mix albums.
As for movies, the animated “Howl’s Moving Castle,” by Hayao Miyazaki, is as popular as any Hollywood film, edging out “The Incredibles” and the latest Harry Potter adventure. Meanwhile, Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” remains the highest-grossing movie in Japan’s history, hauling in a record 30 billion yen, or about $288 million at current exchange.
And even if Japanese fashion lags behind the renaissance in art and film — Sischy notes this is often the case — young designer brands are flourishing and churning out cool clothes as an alternative to the dominant foreign brands. Among the most exciting is Dress Camp, one of about 60 names showcased during the recent Tokyo fashion week.