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TOKYO CUTTING EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai #3 : Think About Where Humanity Meets Technology with Etsuko Ichihara

『TOKYO CUTTING-EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai』#3 : 市原えつこと考える、“人間性”とテクノロジーの融合
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TOKYO CUTTING EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai #3 : Think About Where Humanity Meets Technology with Etsuko Ichihara

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TOKYO CUTTING-EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai is column series, which covers Tokyo’s latest cutting-edge culture! In this series she’ll be interviewing creators that have caught her interest, in order to discover the latest cutting-edge culture in Tokyo. For our first installment, we interviewed artist Ai☆Madonna, and for the second time welcoming Junya Suzuki, who has been working for fashion label “chloma”, and for this time we will be interviewing artist Etsuko Ichihara, who has been creatingvery unique works.

julie-watai-etsuko-ichihara-03

Etsuko Ichihara

Julie: Hello, and thank you for making time to chat with me today. I think there might be some readers out there who are just hearing your name for the first time as part of this series, so would you mind introducing yourself first?

Etsuko Ichihara: Sure! I’m working as an artist in Tokyo, and am also a director of wild ideas! (laugh) I make things that combine unique aspects of Japanese culture with technology, and I’ve created things like the “Sexual Harassment Interface” with Japanese radishes that make sexy breathing noises when you touch them, and my most recent work, the “Digital Shaman Project”, which incorporates the familiar ideas of the Buddhist 49 days mourning ritual into a household robot.

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※The interview was taken through Skype video chat

Julie: The title of artist and “director of wild ideas” seems fitting. Even as an artist, I think it’s safe to say that your genre of work has already surpassed the boundaries of art and is something of your very own world.

Etsuko: I appreciate the compliment. Even I feel like I’ve lost myself considering the current field I’m exploring, but for convenience sake I like to refer to myself as an artist. I’m a total outsider when it comes to entertainment, research, art, and many other fields. (laugh) But if I were to give the current field I’m in a name, I’d say it’s close to media art. As far as the “director of wild ideas” goes, I often work together with technical directors, but the title first came about when I was directing myself and thought, “Hmm I wonder what kind of area would this fall under? Oh, I know! Something wild!!”

Julie: I see; I can definitely see these wild ideas of yours represented in your work. You tend to work with other technical people as a unit, don’t you?

julie-watai-etsuko-ichihara-01

Sekuhara Intaafeesu (Sexual Harassment Interface) セクハラ・インターフェース

Contributor Wanted!!

Julie: Speaking of your work, I was initially shocked by your “sexual harassment interface”. The first time I saw it was while I was serving as a judge for the Electronic Works Contest (Denshi Kosaku Contest, which is now called Gugen) that was held at Arts Chiyoda (3331 Arts Chiyoda) in Akihabara, and the jury room was abuzz over the bold outline of your presence compared to the other electronic works there. Would it be fair to say that that was your first work as a director of wild ideas?

Etsuko: That’s right, the sexual harassment interface was a collaborative effort with technical director Taiki Watai. Hearing you remind me of what happened there always brings a smile to my face.

Actually, as a college student I had been a video director, but the sexual harassment interface was the first time I really felt, “This is it!!!”. Before I had mostly directed a horror-style pink film (pink cinema is a genre of adult film in Japan). Basically I liked sharing wild ideas as part of a team and then creating things from them.

Julie: What kind of pink film did you do? I’m curious to know!

Etsuko: Oh! (laugh) It dealt with a feminism-like theme, with Chizuko Ueno’s haiku “Kusatteiku kai to hitotsu no yane no shita ni iru” (“Sharing the same room with a rotting shellfish”), expressing disgust of women drowning in their sexuality as the subject, and its plot consisted of a Japanese ronin student (a student who fails his or her university entrance exam and then studies on their own in hopes of passing it the next time around) tempted by the ghost of a shellfish, lol. I asked a friend to appear nude for it. It was a pretty reckless thing to ask…

Julie: It feels like it had a pretty philosophic message to it. In fact, I feel like your work now has a really strong message, so you could say it first took root then! Did you ever dream of becoming a film director?

Etsuko: Yes, to a certain extent I was smitten with the idea of becoming a director or a video director in the field of advertising. But apparently I showed an aptitude for using technology to bring life to my ideas, and when I realized this I shifted my focus to IT. The video industry is a really physically demanding one. I’m afraid to say I don’t really possess the physical strength for it…

Julie: I see, so you decided on your current direction when you were a university student. It appears both your video work back then and your work now deals with the raw themes of sexuality and life and death, but why did you choose these themes? Is it because of a certain event or influence? The way you outwardly express yourself is rather matter of fact, and it’s really interesting to see that kind of gap.

Etsuko: That’s a good question… Half of it was an unconscious choice, so I’m not even sure myself. However, in today’s society there’s always an outline of what you “should” be doing. Like clean, “correct” images of people when it comes to health or rationality. Sexuality and death are both always lingering in the corner and despised, but I’ve always felt that rejecting either seems fake somehow! As far as a specific event goes, when I was in university there was a period when I was very actively researching about Japanese gender culture. I was very impressed by sex museums and taken aback by the gods of genitalia worship. I thought, “This is what Japanese culture is all about!!!” lol I mean, Japanese people are incredible when it comes to imagining the erotic. Like we’re a country of perverts!!! lol

Photographer, Model: Julie Watai Location: KIMURA Workshop/2011 Shoot 撮影、モデル Julie Watai ロケ地 KIMURA工房 /2011年撮影

Photographer, Model: Julie Watai Location: KIMURA Workshop/2011 Shoot
撮影、モデル Julie Watai ロケ地 KIMURA工房 /2011年撮影

Julie: I agree; the Japanese attitude on sex is certainly unique. There aren’t many religious in Japan, even when it comes to Buddhism. So sex culture in Japan has been encouraged over a long period of time. In many other countries, sexual expression is limited due to religious rules and commandments.

Etsuko: I think it’s because Japan wasn’t a country where Christianity had really taken root. There’s the theory that with the introduction of Christian views, Japan’s unique sexual culture and our sexuality have started to become viewed as “embarrassing”. But essentially, I think that carefree attitude towards sex still exists today, especially if you look at things like loli-e (sexual depictions of minors). (laugh) Shunga-like (pornographic woodblock prints) imagery still influences “painters” today.

Julie: I agree when it comes to loli-e. It’s a big problem in some countries. I think precisely because we have a history of shunga that it’s something you still see on a regular basis. Speaking of which, not only do you have a birds-eye view of Japanese sex culture, but in representing that in your art, I personally feel like I get a feel for Japan’s future from artists like yourself.

Delusion and Reality Alternating System SR×SI 妄想と現実を代替するシステムSR×SI

Delusion and Reality Alternating System SR×SI
妄想と現実を代替するシステムSR×SI

Julie: I’d like to change the topic a little, and ask you a little more about your work. Although I haven’t had the chance to try out your “Delusion and Reality Alternating System SR×SI” system yet, just watching the video for it got me really excited!

Etsuko: Oh!!!

Julie: What did the guys who tried it out think about it?

Etsuko: They were pretty excited, lol. I had everyone fill out a questionnaire afterward, and 80% said they were pretty aroused, while 20% said they were very aroused.

Julie: lolololol

Etsuko: There were five different feedback ratings, and mostly everyone gave it a high marks.

Julie: They must have felt really aroused, then! Were there any reactions from men afterward that stood out?

Etsuko: After we took down the head-mounted display when the trial run was finished, there was one disappointed guy who sank to the floor like, “Nooo…”

Julie: Wow!!

Etsuko: He really broke out in a sweat! We had women try it, too, and they said they could get a sense for what boys feel when they’re going through puberty.


Julie: I’m a little envious they got such a good workout. But it must have been pretty embarrassing when you consider how other people were watching. (laugh) I’m curious to know what people were feeling while they were experiencing the SR×SI. I bet everyone felt something different. I got a good laugh at the lady in the picture, who was feeling up a radish thinking it was a thigh.

Etsuko: I think you’re right. While what they’re seeing is the same, depending on that person’s life experience it seems like they feel a variety of different things. I’m glad you could see the humor in what people inside the experiment are experiencing and what people outside of it see! While the person in the experience thought they were touching a girl’s thigh, you could see onlookers standing around and grinning cheekily. There’s also a kissing scene, but at the same time they’re actually putting their lips on a wet marshmallow.

Photographer: Julie Watai Model: Haruna Kozoe Location: Super Potato Akihabara / 2011 Shoot 撮影 Julie Watai モデルはるな梢 ロケ地 スーパーポテト秋葉原店 /2011年撮影

Photographer: Julie Watai Model: Haruna Kozoe Location: Super Potato Akihabara / 2011 Shoot
撮影 Julie Watai モデルはるな梢 ロケ地 スーパーポテト秋葉原店 /2011年撮影

Julie: In the near future, if adult-themed games with headphone mounted displays become more widespread, those who have them on might do the same strange things…!

Etsuko: I’d like to make that happen. (laugh) There’s a lot of dystopian-like imagery associated with the future of technology, but it can also be amusing. In the future people will be able to be happy on their own.

ペッパイちゃん(PEPPAI-CHAN)

ペッパイちゃん(PEPPAI-CHAN)

Julie: When you unveiled your work PEPPAI-CHAN, it really got people on the net talking.

PLEASE Watch PEPPAI-chan’s video on Nico Nico Dougahttp://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm26025677

Etsuko: Oh, PEPPAI-CHAN…! Yes, it made waves for a number of reasons. We took a household robot and mounted a tablet on her chest displaying breasts, and when someone would touch her she would make heavy breathing noises.

Julie: When I saw it on Twitter I was worried about the negative comments left by people who didn’t understand your intentions behind it, but because of that it became an international sensation. People wouldn’t normally think to put a tablet showing breasts on a robot’s chest like that! (laugh)

Etsuko: I think so, too. It was something I was motivated to make while caught up in the enthusiasm of a development event, and I had no idea it would get so much attention. Perhaps they were able to project the same feelings they have towards others onto the human-like robot. Oh, and whenever someone fondled her breasts too much, PEPPAI-CHAN would sound an alarm as she shook off the offending hand, and there was also a function that would tweet a picture of the person as well as their age and gender, but this had some pros and cons to it when it came to privacy issues, lol…

Julie: Well, um, well you shouldn’t be over doing it, then! (laugh)

 

DIGITAL SHAMAN PROJECT

DIGITAL SHAMAN PROJECT

Julie: Then there’s your DIGITAL SHAMAN PROJECT. This is your most recent work, right?

Etsuko: It is! It’s still relatively new, and I’m in the process of developing it now.

Julie: The video was really well done, and the story really had me going until the end. It made me think about a lot of different things.

Etsuko: Wow, I’m really glad to hear that! I have the support of the Cultural Affairs Agency’s Media Art Creator Development Assistance Program to thank for that, where a video director named Mr. Takai did me a big favor. This time around with the video we tried to evoke not feelings of laughter or sadness, but ones that were more ambiguous. Their changes depend on the person’s perception. A person who had lost someone close to them said that these kinds of hazy feelings had really helped, which was really moving for me.

Julie: Pepper-kun is wearing a mask of your deceased grandfather, isn’t he? That alone makes him feel different from his usual appearance.

Etsuko: That’s right. That’s because face has a strong element of power to it. It has the power to erase the previous conceptions about Pepper-kun’s character. Initially I was just going to speak about the deceased using words, but then I realized that traces of it left on the body would prove powerful than the content of a message, and so it turned into this instead!

Julie: Hearing you say earlier that it’s “easy for people to transfer their feelings to something of human form” really got me thinking about this video. It’ll run during a time limit for 49 days, after which the mask will finally come off. I think that perhaps there’s a lot of people who can’t accept the reality of losing someone close to them. But it would be really helpful if there were a service like this.

Etsuko: I think so. Not everyone has the chance to say a proper farewell. In particular, I think there are many cases where someone passes away during a natural disaster, and in instances like these, I think it’s better to have a grace period like this. 49 days is a number that is familiar to Buddhism, but I think it was originally well thought out.

Julie: Yeah. 49 days seems like enough time to get a handle on your feelings. I think every family should have one. I’d love to have a set of them!

Etsuko: Each family having one would be really ideal! Before everyone family has their own robot, I’d like to come out with a “Ghost Store” selling different people’s personalities. I could probably get quite a lot selling the personalities of different celebrities. (laugh)

Julie: The name Ghost Store sounds pretty cool! I think it would do well internationally!

Photography: Julie Watai Model: Hinami-chan Location: Kanasuke Workshop (Figure Prototype Instructor) / 2013 Shoot 撮影 Julie Watai モデル 悲なみちゃん ロケ地 かなすけ工房(フィギュア原型師)/2013年撮影

Photography: Julie Watai Model: Hinami-chan Location: Kanasuke Workshop (Figure Prototype Instructor) / 2013 Shoot
撮影 Julie Watai モデル 悲なみちゃん ロケ地 かなすけ工房(フィギュア原型師)/2013年撮影


 

The spiritualism and humanism evident at the background of Etsuko’s work, after hearing it explained through her own words, leaves us with a lot of questions to ponder. Feelings and that which we can’t see plants fear inside us, which can’t be measured physically and is something strange that remains hidden inside of us. I believe every day Etsuko is exploring the possibilities of this unknown field, which lies at the root of our humanity.

At a first glance, her latest technology has a certain factor of entertainment to it, but feels familiar even to those who aren’t well versed in the field. However, once they experience the trip it takes them on and the spirit world the lies there, it sets everything into motion. I wonder if they realize that in her mind, we are all deep laboratory tables to be used for research.

Related links
Etsuko Ichihara official site : http://etsukoichihara.tumblr.com/
Etsuko Ichihara Twitter : https://twitter.com/moja_etsuko

Julie Watai official site : http://juliewatai.jp/


Read more articles TOKYO CUTTING-EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai

#2 : The Future of Fashion with Junya Suzuki from “chloma”

http://tokyogirlsupdate.com/tokyo-cutting-edge-creators-chloma-20160488332.html

#1 : #1 : Past and Present of Akihabara with Ai☆Madonna

http://tokyogirlsupdate.com/tokyo-cutting-edge-creators-ai-madonna-20160383506.html

Translated by Jamie Koide

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Author
Julie Watai
Julie Watai

After working at an idol in Japan, Julie Watai moved by herself to Italy, publishing SAMURAI GIRL in 2006 while working as a photographer for Italian publishing company DRAGO&ARTS. She quickly became an international Japanese pop culture figure, gaining a large following. After returning to Japan, she continued her work as a photographer, along with developing electronics as a hobby and iPhone apps, and has been remarkably successful as part of the Akiba-style geek culture, too.

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