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Trendy Japanese Grab for Masks

Sunday, May 15, 2005 Posted: 03:00 PM JST

(by Paul-Vincent McInnes) - It was when my Japanese friend told me that I had looked bored throughout a party that I hit on the subject of masks. She explained to me that in Japan social masks were obligatory in all public situations and that I really needed to try harder.

It was when my Japanese friend told me that I had looked bored throughout a party that I hit on the subject of masks. She explained to me that in Japan social masks were obligatory in all public situations and that I really needed to try harder. I accepted this but being a sullen foreigner I sometimes feel weary about wearing such masks.

The next day I read an article about Japanese fashion designer Takahiro Miyashita � the man behind the label number (n)ine. He tries to wear masks as much as possible and is gaining attention from many foreign fashion magazines for both his creations and his mystique.

I then saw a few DJs in a Tokyo nightclub wearing paper masks while playing their sets. I couldn�t believe my eyes as it resembled some kind of surreal puppet show for children with the puppets on stage and the audience jumping up and down in a wild hysteria.

I began to look around me and saw Japanese wearing cold masks and it seemed that wherever I went and whatever I thought masks were at the centre of things. In terms of culture masks are beginning to make their way from the periphery into the mainstream. What we see now is a society in which masks not only serve as a social function but also disturb and rearrange existing social and cultural signs.

The relationship between art and masks has a long and well-documented history. From the theatrical masks of Greek and Japanese drama and the modern use of masks in the spectacular works of theatre directors Ariane Mnouchkine and Yukio Ninagawa to the couture catwalk fashion of Galliano and McQueen.

More recently the vivid photographs of Jean-Pierre Khazem have aroused lots of interest. The bizarre images of models with lion masks in the middle of city streets and plastic human faces watching TV looks more like a Goya nightmare than a photograph. If you check out pieces such as Broadway or Untitled V14 from his Llama Project Khazem�s play on surrealism asks questions about the disguises we use for other people and the masks we use for ourselves in solitary or familiar places.

The idea that we may dabble in self-delusion and the acknowledgment of multiple identities can be upsetting to the tough contemporary unified image many of us put on. Individuals are also getting in on the act and there have been many cases of fashionistas in Hong Kong and Tokyo customizing their cold masks with their favorite logos such as Vuitton or Gucci. This kind of identity parade has multiple meanings and interpretations. Although hidden they are allowing us to interpret what kind of person lies behind the mask � a modern fashion-conscious soul. Perhaps this custom-designed piece becomes a solitary statement � I am fashion and nothing else and thus the body becomes art.

The combination of artists and masks reminds us of paparazzi shots of Michael Jackson, Robbie Williams and Eminem hurriedly fleeing airports. These pop-icons use masks in a way that has puzzled me for a long time. By wearing a mask they believe that they cover their true identity and protect their privacy however by wearing these masks they only draw attention to themselves.

What is happening is the obstruction of a two-way process� the enjoyment of being watched but the prevention of someone looking - voyeurism. The interpretation of signs becomes disconnected and what we have is a social sign system based on one-way traffic � the blocking of a reciprocal nature. The freedom to see becomes impeded and an act of cultural egotism is enacted � I am the solitary being.

However many artists use mask wearing as a statement of their artistry � I am not important but my art is. This kind of selflessness is suspicious as once again maybe their art is important but their role as creator is essential to the public � do we have a right to see? Therefore does number (n)ine designer Takahiro Miyashita have the right to hinder my liberty to observe or is he being true to his creations. Is it his identity that is important or his product or art?

So what it comes to is that we have a society now that could be construed as self-centred in many areas from economical, social to cultural. If we have a culture based on the interference of democracy how can we call ourselves free or the values we hold as being based on liberty? Public mask wearing becomes the microcosm for a culture where art and artists hide behind metaphorical and literal masks.

Another possibility is that public mask wearing is another sign of the theatricality of fashion. The catwalk theatre of designers such as Chayalan and Galliano shows that the relationship between these two disciplines is still strong. Japan especially displays street fashion as street theatre � think Harajuku. Is the number (n)ine creator merely playing at his own brand of street theatre? Should we expect young fashion-conscious Japanese to follow suit and wear actual masks � or have we already seen it in versions of yamamba girls or the animal costume trend in Harajuku?

Be it leather, paper or any other material it appears that masks are happening at the moment. As a fashion-statement, street theatre or lifestyle choice masks have a real importance now. If you decide to become part of the mask fraternity don�t forget to show yourself and not merely the mask on your face.

Keywords: culture_news trends_lifestyle

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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