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TOKYO CUTTING EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai #8 : Investigating Nonsense with Maywa Denki

『TOKYO CUTTING-EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai』#8 with 土佐 信道(明和電機)
TOKYO CUTTING EDGE CREATORS by Julie Watai #8 : Investigating Nonsense with Maywa Denki

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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. We have interviewed Ai☆Madonna, Junya Suzuki from chloma, Etsuko IchiharaTORIENA, and Tadashi Shimaya, Nukeme, and Keisuke Nagami from HATRA.

For the 8th installment, we’ll be interviewing Novmichi Tosa from an art unit “Maywa Denki”.


Julie: Tosa-san, Thank you for coming today.

Tosa: My pleasure!

Julie: We recently met at an event held at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, didn’t we?

Tosa: Yes, we did.

Julie: It was a gadget-related event, right? Did you exhibit your products?

Tosa: No, I was there as a judge for “IVRC” (International collegiate Virtual Reality Contest).

Julie: Oh, really? I remember VR works were in the spotlights at the event.

Tosa: Yeah. But I always get motion sickness with a head-mounted display. I saw many works at the event so I felt really sick!

The interview was conducted via Skype. / 対談はSkypeで行われました

The interview was conducted via Skype. / 対談はSkypeで行われました

Julie: (laugh). I know how you feel because I also get some motion sickness too. It’s kind of tough to see back to back, even for me. Now, let me ask you about Maywa Denki and its activities. Maywa Denki is also a famous artist, even my own mother knows. When did you come up with the concept of “Maywa Denki”?

Tosa: It was 1992 when I graduated from Tsukuba University.

Julie: Were you a graduate of Tsukuba University? I thought you went to a fine art college.

Tosa: Actually, Tsukuba University has an art and design course. I studied at a school of art and design. Mr. Ishihara, a producer of Pokemon, a Japanese interactive media and installation artist Toshio Iwai, Ryota Kuwakubo , a Japanese multimedia artist and Shinsuke Yoshitake who is a picture book writer also studied there.

Photo : Julie Watai, Model : Yun*chi, Thanks : Team Lab / 撮影 : Julie Watai, モデル : Yun*chi, 撮影協力 : チームラボ

Photo : Julie Watai, Model : Yun*chi, Thanks : Team Lab / 撮影 : Julie Watai, モデル : Yun*chi, 撮影協力 : チームラボ

Julie: Upon hearing a school of art and design in Tsukuba University, it surely gives us the impression of a full-scale technical media art! And I was surprised that many famous creators you mentioned are also the graduates of that school. According to your official website, you inherited Maywa Denki from your father, right? Excuse me for asking, but is everything a true story? I mean it is so historical, such as making combat aircrafts during World War II and stuff, so I am kind of curious about it.

jui-watai-meiwa-denki-additional-01

Maywa Denki in Akō, Hyogo / 明和電機(赤穂時代)

Tosa: Yes, it is true.

Julie: Oh! Really!!

Tosa: When I was a child, I used to live on the second floor of the company’s factory. You know, everyday was like “Maker Faire”!

Julie: Well, the scale of manufacturing is beyond “Maker Faire” (laugh). But I’m sure you grew up familiarizing yourself with machinery. What was the reaction of your father who is an engineer when you started Maywa Denki?

juli-watai-meiwa-denki-additonal-02

Tosa: My father’s Maywa Denki went bankrupt in 1979 and I started a new Maywa Denki in 1993. Contrary to his Maywa Denki, we produced nonsense machines which confused him at first. He used to say like “Are you guys serious?”, “You know, we still have debts”. But after a while, he began to show an understanding of our concept, saying like “Now I understand it is the sense of fun”.

Julie: It is easy to imagine how shocked he was as an engineer. By the way, Maywa Denki develops very unique electronic products which fuel materialistic desires of people like me who love gadget. What is the key word of your concept?

Tosa: Well, the keyword of the products is…. It’s “Nonsense”!

Julie: Nonsense! That makes sense! For reference, fish are featured in lot of your products, right? Why fish?

Tosa: Well, I really don’t know myself. I have often had nightmares about fish since I was a child. I would say it’s because I want to understand the puzzling part of the nightmares.

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Julie: Nightmares…. That’s why the fish motif products are somehow bizarre. I saw your “sketch’s’ library“ released on your web site. You are so generous to publish so many creative sketches. When and where do you come up with such an idea?

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Tosa: At Doutor Coffee shop.

Julie: Unexpected answer (laugh). Doutor is a café with the common touch. So you hit on something there.

Tosa: I can only come up with good ideas in such a noisy place.

Julie: Are there any ideas that didn’t materialize?

Tosa: Yes, there are many!

Julie: What do you base on your decision to materialize?

Tosa: Like things in which I can digest the “fun” while I’m sketching. For instance, “Fans of Mt. Fuji: Mt. Fuji Electric Fan!” There is no need to make it anymore, right? (laugh)

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Sketch / スケッチ

Julie: It’s amazing that you complete the idea while you are sketching (laugh). I think as an artist, you should be able to make yourself look “cool”, you know typical to new media artists. But I personally get the impression of “funny”, “surreal” and “geeky but cool” from your products and live shows (laugh). Sorry but it’s a compliment (laugh). Are you conscious of being an entertainer?

Tosa: Yes, very much. I can’t help but making people laugh. I guess it’s because I’m from Kansai…. My family has been demanding me to make them “laugh” since I was a child.

Julie: I am also from Kansai so I always find myself attracted to something funny and eccentric. I guess environments where people grew up obviously influence us in many ways.

Tosa: On New Year’s Day, I had to perform something on top of a kotatsu (a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon) to get New Year’s gift money. So my first stage was on the kotatsu (laugh).

Photo/model : Julie Watai, Thanks : Masa Kimura / 撮影/モデル:Julie Watai, 撮影協力: 木村匡孝

Photo/model : Julie Watai,
Thanks : Masa Kimura / 撮影/モデル:Julie Watai, 撮影協力: 木村匡孝

Julie: Born into a family whose father is an engineer, you were offered special education to be funny. You grew up in a hybrid environment! When I saw Maywa Denki’s products at Village Vanguard and Tokyu Hands, I could relate them to your performance that I saw on TV, which really impressed me. In the first place, I think works of an artist are seldom sold on the open market. What made you decide to distribute your products?

Otamatone family / オタマトーンファミリー

Otamatone family / オタマトーンファミリー

Tosa: You know, modern art is my original interest. As you may know, a typical case is paintings; there is only one original which is called ”tableau”. People working in the art field set the price high on the tableau because it is one of a kind. Then only rich or enthusiasts can get it. On the other hand, in the music industry, musicians write music, make copies and sell them as CDs or on the Internet, so called “mass production”. I began to think if it was possible to produce my art in large volume. Luckily, the art I’m making is “machinery” so there is a “drawing”, which enables “mass production”.

Julie: I see. So it all started off with the music industry.

Tosa: Yes. I really got into a band in high school.

julie-watai-ep8-17

Photos from the popular music contest at high school days / 高校ポプコン抜粋、高校バンド時代

julie-watai-ep8-18

Julie: Oh, you played in a band! What kind of music genre?

Tosa: I played in two bands; one was a girl vocal band with my friends and the other was a computer music unit with my brother.

Julie: I guess it is something like techno music. So Meywa Denki‘s live style has started then.

Tosa: YMO, the Japanese electronic music band, was really popular in those days so my brother and I spent all of our allowance on synthesizers, sequencers and stuff.

Photo from popular music contest at high school days / 高校ポプコン抜粋

Photo from the popular music contest at high school days / 高校ポプコン抜粋

Julie: Incidentally, do you always make products specified to distribute generally, such as “Na-Cord” and “otamatone”?

Tosa: Yes, I do. I make a prototype at my atelier and I make it based on mass production. I design as simple and easy as possible because cost is important for toys!

Na-Cord / 魚コード

Na-Cord / 魚コード

Julie: So you see mass production items as toys rather than as art works. But I think Maywa Denki’s works are appealing to adults too because they are good design. I have your “otamatone” at home and I bring it as a souvenir for my friends overseas. They always love it!

Tosa: Oh, thank you very much. I’m going to make more items and by the time of Tokyo Olympics I want to open “Nonsense item Souvenir shop” for foreign tourists!

Julie: It is truly “crazy Japan”, isn’t it? I believe you get enthusiastic responses from overseas. Are your toys actually sold abroad?

Tosa: Yes, they are sold in US, Europe, Asia, around the world.

Julie: I knew they were. You know, there may be people who will come to your live in Japan because they’d play with Maywa Denki’s toys when they were children.

Tosa: Gotcha (laugh). My plan is working!

Sketch / Sketch

Sketch / Sketch

Julie: Oh, so that must be a part of Maywa Denki’s enormous project (laugh)!? I just remembered that you placed a classified on your web site. How many workmen are working for your company now?

Tosa: As of now, there are three workmen and one management stuff; all of them are graduates of Art College.

Julie: So it is highly competitive to work for your company, right? The products used during your live look very heavy so it must be required to be tough to work as a workman. You are not recruiting at the moment, are you?

Tosa: No, not at this moment, but we sometimes need part-timers so if any of you readers are interested in working with us, please contact us!

Photo/model : Julie Watai, Thanks : Masa Kimura / 撮影/モデル:Julie Watai, 撮影協力: 木村匡孝

Photo/model : Julie Watai,
Thanks : Masa Kimura / 撮影/モデル:Julie Watai, 撮影協力: 木村匡孝

Julie: Young and enthusiastic Maywa Denki fans shouldn’t miss the opportunity! I read the news article about your exhibition and live performance in china last year. What was the reaction like there? Did you find any differences or unique responses?

The main visual for an exhibition in Shanghai, China / 中国上海の展示メインビジュアル

The main visual for the exhibition in Shanghai, China / 中国上海の展示メインビジュアル

Digital signage display at Shanghai, China / 中国上海展示の街中サイネージ

Digital signage display at Shanghai, China / 中国上海展示の街中サイネージ

Tosa: Since 2015, we have gotten more business opportunities in China. Last year, we displayed all of our products including new ones at a huge exhibition that was 3,000 square meters in size. Everyone seemed surprised to see our products, like “What are these?”

Live performance at the exhibition in Shanghai, China / 中国上海展示でのライブ

Live performance at the exhibition in Shanghai, China / 中国上海展示でのライブ

Julie: Wow, that big? It must have been quite a job to carry all items but it should have been a spectacular exhibit! I want to see how people overseas react when they see your products and show for the first time!

Tosa: Again I tried to get a laugh in China (laugh). You know, “Monica” by Koji Kikkawa once became a big hit in China so I sang it at the live.

Julie: It’ll be more exciting to add something known in a country. I fully recognize that Maywa Denki always thinks a great deal of audiences even overseas and I think that’s real entertainment. You are already very active in various fields but is there anything else you’d like to try?

Tosa: Actually, curiously enough I appeared on TV dramas recently (laugh).

Julie: Eh? You did? As an actor?

Tosa: Yeah. So far in two dramas; “Jūhan Shuttai” (Second Print Run Confirmed!) and “Masuyama tsuounouryokushi jimusho”. I was a role “fighting over a man” in both dramas…

Julie: Wow, you are a real multitalented entertainer. My hats off to you! I suppose acting involves different expressions compared to the ones in Maywa Denki. Do you enjoy the differences?

Tosa: In terms of controlling myself, I found it similar to creating computer music.

Julie: I guess it is something like installing new software on the same hardware. That idea is so you! Now, last but not least, what do you see about Japan in the near future? Can you see a vision in your mind?

Photo: Julie Watai, Model : Yurika Kubo, Location : Akihabara / 撮影 :Julie Watai, モデル:久保ユリカ, ロケ地: 秋葉原

Photo: Julie Watai, Model :
Yurika Kubo, Location : Akihabara / 撮影 :Julie Watai, モデル:久保ユリカ, ロケ地: 秋葉原

Tosa: Well, the global population has been growing…. We humans should shift our mindset; “Less energy, more fun in life”.

Julie: Wow, a no-nonsense response (laugh). But I agree with you. It is definitely an issue for the future.

Tosa: Occasionally, I run a simulation like “What if Japan again sealed itself off to the world?”, “Can we support ourselves?“, “Will it be OK if we eat fish as our staple diet?”, something like that.

Julie: Oh, I thought you have issues with fish (laugh).

Tosa: I love to eat fish! Sakana-kun (Mr. Fish: He is a fish researcher) also says “Fish are very cute but they are delicious!”

Julie: Well, fish are delicious but scary to you…The more I learn about you, the more I get confused. Anyway, If Japan becomes “dystopian” in the future, we should ask you for advice. I’m sure we’ll be able to get “unexpected but avant-garde answers” from you!

Photo: Julie Watai, Model : Yurika Kubo, Location : Oyaie Denki / 撮影: Julie Watai, モデル: 久保ユリカ, ロケ地: オヤイデ電気

Photo: Julie Watai, Model :
Yurika Kubo, Location : Oyaie Denki / 撮影: Julie Watai, モデル: 久保ユリカ, ロケ地: オヤイデ電気


After the interview / 対談を終えて
My first memory of Tosa-san was quite a long time ago when we were on the panel of judges for an electronic device contest held in Akihabara.

At that time, I jokingly uploaded a video of an evil Furby which became a hot topic, leading me to be invited to that kind of event shortly after, to meet such a famous person made me incredibly anxious but, he was so interesting, full of witty comments and advice. I felt that he is certainly very different from normal people, as expected of someone capable of capturing the imagination of so many.

Expressions not held back by borders, Tosa-san’s way of life is like a fish swimming through the seven seas as he goes on to each new experiment. As we were talking, I could keenly sense his endless talent which is not bound by reality.


Related Links
Maywa Denki Official site : http://www.maywadenki.com/
Maywa Denki Official Twitter : https://twitter.com/maywadenki
Julie Watai Official site : http://juliewatai.jp/
Julie Watai Official Twitter : https://twitter.com/JulieWatai

Translated by Hideko

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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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