Before Takashi Murakami’s exhibition at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA ends next Monday (2/11/08), I wanted to take a look at his star-studded opening back in October 2007. When was the last time we saw so many celebrities at an art opening – when Andy Warhol was alive?
Sometimes a person’s death makes his/her accomplishment more impressive. This was the case for me with Shu Uemura who passed away on December 29, 2007. I used to think he was unusual for his generation of Japanese men and thus needed to leave the country to have more freedom.
This year is the 25th anniversary of Shu Uemura’s flagship store in Omotesando, Tokyo. The news of his death carried me back to 25 years ago when I was a young, cocky sculptor who just had graduated from Tokyo Geidai and was working on the first project to design the interior of Tadao Ando’s new building in Osaka. Around the same period I received an opportunity to design the interior of Shu Uemura’s new flagship store in the most trendy district of Tokyo – I simply declined the offer. I was not interested in what Shu Uemura was doing… or to be more precise, I just couldn’t stand the idea of a guy dealing with makeup at that time.
Now that I am selling fragrances (I sometimes don’t understand why I’m doing it), I can relate to Shu Uemura better. I have to admit that the guy was courageous, and what he has achieved is incomparable.
Speaking of Bijin-Hakumei, perhaps none fits the bill better than this one.
She was phenomenal. Kanebo’s ad campaign in 1977 turned Masako Natusme (夏目雅子) into an instant household name in Japan, and many of us realized that a torso of a Japanese woman could be sexy and beautiful (most models in Japanese ads were Caucasians). She was possessed of a healthy charm. Her beauty was a blend of traditional and new. If the human being is a creature of age, Masako Natsume was the perfect icon of Japanese women during the height of the nation’s economic growth. So it came as a huge shock to most Japanese when she suddenly passed away in 1985 due to acute leukemia at the age of 27.
The image on the left was probably taken more than two decades ago. The one on the right was taken a few years ago.
Who is she?
- Her name is Sayoko Yamaguchi (山口小夜子).
- Sayoko was the first and maybe the only supermodel from Japan. Newsweek magazine named her one of the world’s top six fashion models in 1977.
- Sayoko Mannequin manufactured in ’77 by a British company was displayed all over the world through the ’80s. Fashion designer Anna Sui still owns two of these vintage mannequins and uses them in her shop.
- According to Yoshiharu Fukuhara, Shiseido’s Honorary Chairman and the grandson of the company’s founder, Sayoko was Shiseido’s liaison with Serge Lutens who often had done makeup for Sayoko.
- Sayoko was the face of Shiseido for many years. She had a very Japanese-looking face, but her physique was not (ie. tall height, long legs). She didn’t really make a great model for a kimono because of her not-so-Japanese-looking body, but here is Sayoko in a kimono in one of Shiseido’s commercials.
The word “bi-jin” literally means a beautiful person and mostly used for women. “Haku-mei” denotes ‘thin life’ which translates to short life. It illustrates the Japanese worldview of beautiful things being frail and grieving such frailness. Sayoko Yamaguchi died two months ago at age of 57. Sayoko’s life was almost 30 years short of reaching the average lifespan of Japanese women today. Her life exemplified this idiom.
Her death brought back to me an almost forgotten memory. One fall afternoon, when I was about 17, I was waiting for a local train at Yokohama station to go to Tokyo. When I looked over at the platform for the express trains to Tokyo on the other side of the track, I saw a pair of long legs in yellow boots stretched out below a short skirt moving in elegant strides. They belonged to a very tall young woman with long black hair whom I recognized from glossy fashion magazines. No sooner had I realized it was Sayoko Yamaguchi than I dashed up the stairs of an overpass to get to the other platform where she was. An express train came in before I could get close to her. I kept my eyes on Sayoko Yamaguchi in the distance to remember the car she was getting aboard till I got on the rear car of the train. I walked through the aisles towards Green Cars (the first-class coaches in Japan) as the train headed to Tokyo. When I reached one of the Green Cars I felt so lucky to find her alone, there was nobody else in the car. I probably felt as I was going up to Heaven. I don’t remember how I introduced myself or how I left the car half an hour later. I only remember that I stayed in the car sitting next to her until I got off the train at one of the stops in Tokyo. We chatted about fashion in general, about Issey and Kenzo.
Although she must have been at the height of her modeling career then, the tall, striking woman I met on that cloudy autumn day was extremely gentle and pleasant… far from what we imagine today’s supermodels to be.
In a recent article in Travel + Leisure, Lynn Yaeger writes: “Five minutes after you arrive in Tokyo, you’re struck by it: this is the most stylish city you’ve ever been in, a place where fashion is taken so seriously that many of its women and men are themselves veritable works of art.”
I’m not sure if fashion victims in Tokyo are works of art, but it is an interesting angle to view the phenomenon. For decades, Tokyo has been the place where the cutting edge of fashion can be found all over the city. If you live there and care about fashion, life could become expensive and tiring. (This is one of the reasons I fled to New York almost 20 years ago. New York is crude, and people here are not as chic as people in Paris, not as stylish as people in Tokyo. Things are quite casual and relaxed in New York City.)
My kid brother no longer belongs to the hip, young generation of Tokyo, but I was curious to check what he was wearing during a recent stay in Japan. Like any fashion conscience person, young men in Tokyo are very picky about their shoes. To tell the truth, I couldn’t completely comprehend the trend in men’s shoes this time… In one occasion, my brother was wearing ‘red enamel shoes’ which were kind of a visual assault on my senses (my eyes can only stand looking at a red Ferrari or a red Valentino Garavani dress) and couldn’t remember what kind of clothes he was wearing that day. The only thing I could understand about the men’s shoes in Tokyo was making a strong statement with a pair of shoes. They were more or less the same in shape, but varied in colors, materials and patterns (crocodile, snake, leopard…).
On the last day in Tokyo, we got together at Omotesando after his meeting with clients. He appeared in shoes which seemed to be a pair of Tod’s and a nice Dolce & Gabbana suit. It was a relief to me.
The image has nothing to do with this post, but it’s a common scene in Tokyo.
In brief, this short film is so Tokyo – it’s almost too good for an ad. I haven’t smelled the fragrance but am pretty sure that it isn’t anywhere near this level.
Oh, and ladies (and some gents), if you encounter a young caucasian male in a trendy part of Tokyo, he will likely be as handsome as the “gaijin” in this film. If he is driving a car, it could be a sporty Mercedes or a red Ferrari.
(Warning: The following has nothing to do with perfume.)
When we were young, my brothers back in Tokyo used to make fun of my obsession with “Fifty-year storm” which I actually experienced (in the ocean) one year during the typhoon season and still remember as the most life threatening experience. I’ve always lived in big cities and never imagined living elsewhere, but Life in New York City could be quite boring sometimes. There are no earthquakes or typhoons here. This is not to say that I miss some life-threatening natural phenomena, but I don’t want to lose proximity to our vulnerability to nature’s forces.