Thursday, 13 March 2014

More on kawaii…

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see exhibition "Kawaii" at the Yamatane Museum in the show's closing days. It was popular – although I met a friend there on a weekday afternoon, there were plenty of people visiting. The concept of kawaii (essentially, "cute") has taken a hold on popular imagination. There's aspects to celebrate, but as mentioned before, it has surely gone too far – my friend and I mused that there was a section of the population that, if you took away the word "kawaii", would run out of spoken conversation. This exhibition – though perhaps inadvertently – played into the idea that it has gone so far as to contaminate a large swathe of the concept of beauty or attractiveness.

One painting of a woman was entitled "Natsu bijin" ("Beautiful woman in summer"). But the term "bijin" almost by definition, is not kawaii. It is derogatory to the term of "beauty" (and its link with some concept of maturity) to link it with the ill-though-out, childish call of "kawaii". If you appropriate almost anything to support the development of kawaii, you strip both kawaii's own meaning and the meaning of alternative (even unconnected) words. You bring down the culture to the level that suits ubiquity and the bland.

There were many images in this exhibition of interest, some great paintings. But some seemed almost chosen by random – Ito Jakuchu, whose work is on the poster above, is kawaii just because he paints multiple animals who by definition must be cute? – as though the curator had been through Japanese art and said, yes, this is kawaii, that is kawaii. There's something to be said for searching past influences on the development of kawaii, and perhaps this broad brush approach is actually accurate: kawaii now has no focused meaning, and can apply to beautiful women, sharp-edged cranes flying over a mountain, walking monks and, yes, cute, simple urushi paintings. Sure, it may apply to puppies and chicks. But there's an argument that when the whole culture of beauty is kawaii, it assigns meaninglessness and perhaps signals time to rescue such a part of the culture.

Certainly, a fluffy rabbit is undoubtedly kawaii/cute. But are Hiroshige's prints necessarily so, or have they even contributed to the word's rise? Is the below ("Folding crane"by Meiji-era artist Uemura Shoen and from the exhibition) beautiful, refined, moving, exquisite, sweet, gentle, sensuous – or just a precursor of cute?

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