Shimokitazawa is a tight grid of mostly pedestrian streets on
Tokyo's western fringe, permanently thronged with high school
students in uniform, actors on their way to rehearsal, musicians
carrying guitar cases, and otaku—those obsessive, perverse
collectors at once so marginal and so central to Japan's image.
Otaku are loners, but their interests bind them into
anomalous, autistic tribes and bring them en masse to sacred
locations. Here in Shimokita there's plenty to attract them.
Magazines galore at Dorama. (photo: superlocal)
Or should I say, “to attract us?” Because, just a few doors down
from the model train store filled with plump, sweaty-fingered
schoolboys, you'll find me—I confess—in Dorama, a cramped,
fluorescent-lit culture store crammed from floor to ceiling with
I finger them like rare treasures, flipping through their
yellowing pages and placing them back on the shelf in chronological
order. So, that's what 1987 felt like! I'd forgotten, as old layers
of socialization have been overwritten with newer, fresher ones.
Now it's the “stale” old stuff that's fresh to me, because
freshness requires unfamiliarity. And I've forgotten more of this
stuff than I ever knew!
Here's 1967—a vintage year for Space Age fashion photography,
featuring ribbed tights, vinyl bubble dresses and Pierre Cardin's
patented synthetic material, Cardine! And 1992—not as I knew it in
London, but as it broke over Tokyo! It's all here in
Popeye magazine. And Relax—it ran its final issue
last September, didn't it? Yet here's the whole set, like a gaggle
of friendly ghosts. Here, I can retrace the development of
photographer Takashi Homma's color palette, from chilly,
blue-tinted cityscapes to warmer tones from the time when his
daughter was born.
If you don't have a branch of Dorama near you, don't despair.
You can still be a magazine pervert, thanks to a hyperactive
coffee-table publishing industry just as obsessive about collecting
old magazines as I am.
In the last three months alone we've seen a plethora of these
books get published. There's a survey of the European underground
press in the '60s and '70s, 200 Trips for the Counterculture: Graphics and Stories from the
Underground Press Syndicate, from the redoubtable
Jean-François Bizot, who gave the world Nova and
Actuel magazines; and Hot
Love: Swiss Punk and Wave from 1976-80, Lurker Grand's
loving commemoration of the Swiss New Wave zine scene. Rizzoli
offers us David Renard's The Last Magazine: Magazines in Transition, while
Black Dog presents Neville Brody and Steve Taylor collating
100 Years of Magazine Covers. Finally, there's Die
Gestalten's We Love Magazines and PIE Books' The Secret Sense of Japanese Magazine Design, my own
personal favorite, even though I don't read Japanese.
The seductive covers of several recent, international
Sniff these books and you'll get a big whiff of expensive new
printer's ink rather than the vinegary sea-smell of vintage paper.
But in other respects they're as good as a trip to Dorama, or
better. After all, when you're browsing an old copy of the
International Times in a secondhand store you don't have
founder Barry Miles standing there beside you giving you the back
story to its pages.
But books like these aren't just cultural history conveniently
repotted. They perform a sort of paradoxical magic. Considered
ephemeral at the time of their production, magazine layouts are
pressed like dried leaves between these pages, speaking to us with
a specificity, an informality, that brings the past—or another
culture—alive like nothing else. The ephemeral turns out to be the
most interesting thing to make permanent.
Something else happens—for me, at least—when I look at old
magazines. And this is where I want to use resonant words like
ostranenie and verfremdungseffekt, terms for
fruitful alienation or dramatic distancing coined by the Russian
formalists and Bertolt Brecht, respectively. The consumer society
depicted in the pages of old magazines—advertising and editorial
both, although the advertising perhaps somewhat more so—has lost
its power to seduce, bully or dominate. The products presented look
quaint, the future promised farcically fallacious. Everything has
been valuably alienated—contextualized, sure, but also de- and
Interior pages from The Secret Sense... (PIE Books).
It's not just that I'm no longer able to suspend disbelief about
the stuff I see in old magazines; I know that this alienation
effect will still apply, lingeringly, when I return to the
artifacts of my own time, my own culture. They'll have been
relativized. I'll see them as the frail disjecta of a fleeting era,
preserved (perhaps) as something quaint in a future just as
fascinated by cultural comparisons—and estrangements—as I am.
But while this might alienate me from my own culture, it can
also endear it to me. Alienation, after all, shares something with
glamour: they both use distance to produce an effect of exoticism.
Instead of a commercial bully bellowing in my ear, what British art
critic Peter Fuller called “the mega-visual tradition” becomes,
with a magical sprinkling of estrangement, something of a siren
song, suddenly rooted, quirky and highly mortal.
So here's i-D Magazine's Japanese edition, exuberantly
designed by Tycoon Graphics (to whom British publisher Terry Jones
gave carte blanche to make the Japanese i-D as different
as they liked). It ran for just 16 issues between 1991 and 1993. A
commercial failure, maybe, but as valuable as a deep slice of
Arctic ice core for scientists researching the geothermals of
OK, just call us “magazine perverts.”
Traffic signs set the rules of the road, but signage alone won't create order where only chaos exists. Caplan recalls the postwar pileup on China's highways and byways.
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