Torayan’s Great Adventure
As part of the 2009 Aqua Metropolis Osaka event, a special exhibition of Kenji Yanobe’s darkly cartoonish visions of ‘the ruins of the future’ was held. Yanobe, who was born in Osaka, is fascinated with science-fiction visions of the future — including the techno-utopian exuberance of the 1970 World Expo in Osaka and the pop stylings of Japanese productions such as Ultraman and Godzilla — as well as the all-too-real radioactive legacy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For his Atom Suit Project he traveled to post-meltdown Chernobyl in a specially made radiation suit in which he was photographed at various locations (especially poignant are the photographs of Yanobe sitting among dismembered dolls at what used to be a children’s nursery); he followed this up with an exploratory journey through the remains of the 1970 Expo, wearing a similar yellow Atom Suit to that which he wore in Chernobyl in order to highlight the sense of desolation, of post-futurity, that is associated with a vision of the future that has already become a dead letter.
Since completing these projects he’s gone on to create his memorable character Torayan, a ventriloquist’s dummy that travels in a bright yellow radiation suit and is meant to symbolize the fusion of the world of children and the world of adults. Torayan, originally called “Naniwa no Torayan,” gets his name from the Hanshin Tigers (tora means ‘tiger’ in Japanese), Osaka’s most popular baseball team. Torayan is cute, like a child, but this cuteness is disturbed by the pushbroom mustache and salaryman combover that accentuate his adult features. There’s a sense of childlike explorational wonder in Torayan’s eyes (or is this just a type of hopeful ventriloquism?), but at the same time the radiation suit marks the world that Torayan finds himself in as a world of potential danger.
These early works by Yanobe also display the same odd combination of comedic cartoon innocence and techno-horrific danger that can be seen in the figure of Torayan. The larger of these two pieces is the 1990 Tanking Machine, an isolation chamber filled with saline-rich water that is heated to body temperature. At it’s initial unveiling, participants were asked to wear bathing suits so they could enter the tank and experience the womblike feeling of losing themselves in the floating warmth of the chamber. The death’s-head gas mask and the sterile industrial exterior of the tank, however, are an odd enclosure for a space that’s intended to elicit dreamy forgetfulness. It’s as if Yanobe can’t ever let us experience the pure pleasure of his creations without us always having to keep in mind the secondary, darker context of that pleasure. An analogy, perhaps, would be a photo of a slaughterhouse printed on the package of a heart-shaped hamburger patty.
Both the ship in the photograph above and the ship in the photograph below have been given the same name by Yanobe — Lucky Dragon. The life-sized ship below was created exclusively for the 2009 Aqua Metropolis Osaka festival and is driven by Torayan (encased in a Plexiglas dome at the front of the ship). While the ship is futuristic in many ways, it also refers back to the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in which a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon 5 (第五福龍丸), was exposed to nuclear fallout. From Wikipedia:
Daigo Fukuryū Maru encountered the fallout from the U.S. Castle Bravo nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll, near the Marshall Islands, on March 1, 1954. The boat, along with its 23 fishermen aboard, as well as their catch of fish, was contaminated. They returned to Yaizu, Japan on March 14. The crew members, suffering from nausea, headache, burns, pains in the eyes, bleeding from the gums, etc., were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome and admitted to two Tokyo hospitals. On September 23, chief radio operator Mr. Aikichi Kuboyama, 40, died — the first Japanese victim of a hydrogen bomb. He left these words: “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.”
This incident helped to spark the anti-nuclear movement in Japan and it was also an inspiration for Ishiro Honda’s masterpiece, Godzilla. Yanobe’s ship is an object of wonder and delight in terms of its futuristic playfulness, but there are lots of dark historical connections at work in the piece as well.
One of the most amazing of Yanobe’s creations on display was the seven-meter tall Giant Torayan, a childlike robot that can turn its head from side to side, shake its arms, and breath fire. Inside the chest of Giant Torayan is a smaller Torayan pilot who, from time to time, emerges from the chest cavity and then moves back inside. This doubling of pilot and robot, seen in such famous mecha anime as Gundam, Patlabor, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, is a trope that speaks to the ultimate fantasy of surrogate omnipotence; however, in the case of Giant Torayan the fantasy is shown to be the disturbing fantasy of a child-adult that can’t imagine anything outside of its own strangely articulated shape. The robot fantasies of children become monstrous when allowed to reach their full size without attenuation. As Yanobe’s website says,
This GIANT TORAYAN doll is the ultimate child’s weapon, as it sings, dances, breathes fire, and follows only those orders given by children.
In this particular installation, inside the enormous entrance lobby of Osaka City Hall, there was no firebreathing to be had, unfortunately.
The strange proliferation of Torayan at the exhibit — the idea of an infinite army of Torayan clones — generates a sense of the uncanny all on its own (much as a bar full of black velvet clown paintings might), but I think Yanobe is also getting at something else here. Yanobe considers his generation to be a generation that grew up in a world of delusion — a world in which the science fiction pleasures of such Japanese characters as Gamera, Godzilla, Kamen Rider, and Astro Boy dominated the imagination to such an extent that any sense of ‘the real’ became elided. In response to this Yanobe decided to create his own world of delusion, but one which purposely plays with and reveals the radioactive background glow that informs its imaginative inception. The army of Torayan clones in the exhibit are then, perhaps, surrogates for the idea that imagination and delusion are always mediated by collective cultural expressions and that, in an era when access to infinitely replicable media images guarantee that our imaginations resemble that of our neighbors, the possibilities of our imaginative exploration are always in some ways contained by the mediating atom suits that define our collective generational unconscious.
However, on a final note of hope: Torayan is Yanobe’s creation and Yanobe’s alone. He has indeed succeeded in creating an idiosyncratic world of delusion to explore, and perhaps this space of imagination leaves just enough of an opening for some sort of escape — a step out of the airlock into the gravity-free space of potentiality.
Filed under: art, culture, design, exhibit, Japan, Kansai, Osaka | 15 Comments
Tags: 1970 World Expo, Atom Suit Project, atomic bomb, とらやん, ヤノベケンジ, dragon boat, future, Kenji Yanobe, Lucky Dragon, Lucky Dragon 5, mecha, mecha anime, radiation, robot, robots, science fiction, Torayan, Yanobe Kenji