Roppongi Art Night is more than just a collection of offbeat art-related events, performances, and exhibits that takes place during a hopefully balmy night in early spring. Now entering its third year, the all-night art festival is also another aspect of a major effort to "rebrand" this part of Tokyo as the event's Executive Director, Fumio Nanjo, freely admits to Metropolis.
"Yes, that's right. Roppongi has become not only a town for the night but also for the day," he cheerfully informs Metropolis. "Now we have businesses of the daytime, like light cafés, galleries, and museums. Yes, we have drinking places and bars, but we also have different things, so Roppongi has become a 24-hour city. You can enjoy it with family and friends, and it's not just drunk guys making trouble. Roppongi Art Night symbolizes this change."
Formerly the sort of place that could give Kabukicho's red light district a run for its money, Roppongi has been on the rise since the opening of Roppongi Hills in 2003. Since then several additional high profile developments have given it a more diverse economic base and an upmarket image. Seen in this light, Roppongi Art Night is part of an attempt to turn a corner on the area's history of hard-drinking, drugs, and salacious entertainment – or to at least tone things down!
Interestingly, the Okubo area, to the North of Kabukicho, once known for its international bevy of streetwalkers, has undergone a similar process of civic bowdlerization, in this case by promoting its Korean heritage and drawing in middle-aged Japanese women crazy for all things Korean. Roppongi, by contrast, has opted for a more high-brow approach in shaking off its sleazy reputation.
Not only this, but within Tokyo's well-stocked spectrum of art institutions, Roppongi, led by the Mori Art Museum, of which Nanjo is also Director, has positioned itself as an artistic centre that welcomes a younger demographic. The contents of Roppongi Art Night and the Mori Art Museum have a strong slant towards trendy contemporary art with greater youth appeal, while the all-night aspect of RAN and the Mori's closing time of 10pm every night (except Tuesdays) also encourage younger audiences.
Noting the difference in tastes and time patterns of the various demographics, Nanjo rejects the suggestion that older people are excluded by these policies, while at the same time admitting that many older people will simply feel reluctant to stay out late in the name of art.
"If it's traditional Japanese art, of course there are many old people," he says. "If it's Impressionism, it's mainly ladies. If we design the contents for young people, young people will come. But I don't know if it's only for young people, because if older people want to stay they can stay, but usually they want to sleep."
As usual the contents this year were chosen with the younger generation in mind, but how will the show differ from last year? One change is that the number of small art objects that were placed throughout the streets last year will be less.
"The small works in the town were not so effective for many people last time so we are focusing on fewer spots and bringing bigger works," Nanjo comments.
Also, this year's event will swing away from the otaku-dominated theme of last year, when the main attraction was a giant robotic alien eye that displayed the carbon emissions of the people watching.
"Last year and the year before, the centrepieces were somehow monsters, like boy's toys. This year we shifted to a bit of a softer, more feminine image with childlike images, soft and pink, and more human art with the emphasis on feelings."
Yet, despite its focus on the youth demographic, this year's show is headed by the 82-year old Yayoi Kusama, the grande dame of the Japanese avant-garde art world. Cutting a figure reminiscent of a geriatric Lady Gaga, Kusama hardly seems like an endorsement of youth in art. Asked how she feels about being selected to spearhead such an event, Kusama resorts to expansive artistic platitudes that reveal her boundless artistic confidence better than her lucidity.
"I think it is because everyone loves my creations, and many people want to see my creations," she says. "I am an avant-garde artist, and my art creations are just like my way of life, that is they are for my life, which is enormously energetic and obsessive."
Kusama's work will be a giant inflatable figure, decorated with the polka dot patterns that she has all but patented. This represents her as a little girl with her dog walking around Roppongi. Despite the artist's venerable age and the heavily nostalgic note her artwork sounds, Nanjo is keen to defend her selection.
"She wants to say that still there's a future for her and also for many Japanese who are always hearing about recession and the sinking of Japan," Nanjo says. "Her strong message is 'Tomorrow is Mine.' She's not looking back to her past. She's trying to capture the moment of children, who are always expecting a positive future soon. It's not only about her past. She's talking about children in general. Children have a future, so people should look at tomorrow as a positive image."
The nostalgic childlike atmosphere of Kusama's sculpture Love Forever, The Future is Mine will be echoed by other artists at the event, including KOSUGE 1-16, a creative unit comprising Takashi Tsuchiya and Chishino Kurumada, who specialize in interactive exhibits, including giant mock-ups of table football, and Antenna, a collective of Kyoto-based artists who will bring their artworks featuring their "Jappy" character to town.
Looking like a local attempt to rip off Mickey Mouse, Jappy is usually combined with elements, like Mt. Fuji, traditional dress, and Japanese religious symbols in what seems like an exploration of what it means to be Japanese in the 21st century. Are these works satirizing or celebrating patriotism.
"These are both satirical and patriotic works," Hideyuki Tanaka of Antenna explains. "We have built modern Japanese society by rapid Westernization, which has strained our original culture. The symbol of this distortion is Jappy. However, we see the possibilities of making interesting culture from mixing Western and Eastern influences through these distortions."
For Roppongi Art Night the group will create traditional omikoshi portable shrines that will carry several versions of Jappy through the streets, in effect casting Jappy in the role of protective deity of the art night. But isn’t this all a little disrespectful of ancient religious traditions?
"In Japan, we have the phrase 'eight million gods.' People believe there is a god in everything," Tanaka responds. "If you look at Jappy in this way, it is not very special to think of Jappy as a god too. We were actually thinking of putting Jappy on a toilet bowl on an omikoshi. It may be very difficult to explain this as there is a big difference between Western monotheistic faiths and paganism."
Area rebranding, art demographics, large inflatable nostalgia trips, and midnight toilet-omikoshis! It can all seem so confusing, but viewing it as part of some all-embracing pagan festival might just hold the key. Nanjo's final message echoes this idea of festival.
"It's only one night. We should get together and enjoy the night life of Roppongi," he advises. "It's just the beginning of spring time. The cherry blossom is blooming. People have been inside their houses over the long winter, but now you can go out and stay outside. Enjoy the cherry blossoms, enjoy the art. If you want to, you can go to some bar to drink with your friends and stay very, very late."
(This article was due to appear in Metropolis but following the Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake both the event and the article were cancelled)