❖ Note from the Editor This article was originally published in December 2018. Yes, it’s painfully self-concerned and a little difficult to read back, but for newcomers to the project you might find some “obvious truths” about Vekllei you have not yet encountered.
I did not come to Tokyo to find a reference for the Petticoat Project, because utopia does not exist there for me. In fact, by nearly every Vekllei metric, Tokyo is positively dystopian — a consumer paradise of the crushing, isolating modernity Vekllei is supposed to escape. And yet, marks of this city (and this country) are prevalent through Vekllei as a constructed country and my aesthetic as a writer and an artist. I can’t bring myself to love all of Japanese society, but I do love the country and its people. This intersection between traditional utopian world-building (along the lines of News from Nowhere or even the original Utopia) and the emotional, linear fragments of utopian storytelling which realise the cold encyclopaedia of a utopian world were the focus of my expedition to Japan. The premise of Vekllei society is at odds with so much of Japanese society — yet the emotional, aesthetic culture of the country (what I call the ‘character’ of utopianism) has influenced my media creation tremendously.
As a supplementary preface, I would like to note that it would be terrible of me to dismiss Japan as an oriental wonder of salarymen and neo-Zaibatsu. That approach has more in common with Frank Capra’s wartime propaganda piece Know Your Enemy: Japan than it does with real structural criticism. It is all too easy to dismiss the social and economic conditions of the country today as the natural inclination of a Japanese caricature — a homogenous hive-mind of enormously productive and obedient people. This is of course a terrible attack on the proud and long-standing tradition of dissent and progressiveness in the country — which is also home to one of the world’s largest opposition communist parties. It is a country of student mobilisation, protests and intense factionalism between the left and right-wing radicals1. It is important not to conflate the impersonal structures of a society with the orientalist idea of cultural predisposition.
A love of Studio Ghibli films and a desire for material and emotional escapism is what drives my utopian world-building. Where co-founder Isao Takahata had a penchant for artful emotional realism and domestic drama, Hayao Miyazaki has found tremendous success in Japan and abroad with his fantastical stories rich with nostalgia and warmth. They have obvious recurring themes — childhood, environmentalism, aircraft, etc., but it is no real secret (at least to media critics and Ghibli superfans) that these overt recurrences are symptomatic of more serious and grounded beliefs. In a fantastic analysis of My Neighbour Totoro, Phillip E. Wegner makes use of Kojin Karatani’s works (another great influence of mine) to illustrate Miyazaki’s uniquely Japanese pre-Meiji cross-generational nostalgia evident in the film.
What Miyazaki presents us with in My Neighbor Totoro is a vision in which the classic “what if” question of the genre has been proposed: that is, what if the Meiji revolution did not happen? Moreover, since it is the dramatic and rapid modernization of the Meiji period that gives rise to the virulent imperialist nationalism and militarism that ultimately results in the Second World War, Miyazaki also offers in his film us a glimpse of a Japan in which the catastrophe of World War II did not occur2.
Japan’s spectre of modernity is a recurring character in many of Miyazaki’s films, just as the villain of war revives itself time and time again — from the steel production of Iron Town in Princess Mononoke to the death of the golden age of aviation in The Wind Rises. Karatani’s landmark work, Origins of Japanese Literature, makes clear that basic premises of modern society — from children to history to nature — are not immutable items atomised by scientific fact, but instead products of modern society that have not always existed3 pp.12-44, 113-135. Vekllei reflects this concept, at least superficially — children are represented as independent agents desegregated from modern age-based schooling, nature is regarded as a fellow social organ, and work is largely self-satisfying and decommodified. These are things that are important to me and it makes sense enough that Vekllei reflects that.
Similarly, even supposedly less political Ghibli films like Kiki’s Delivery Service carry powerful images of the ‘spectre of modernity’. Regarding the climax of the film in which a zeppelin soars hopelessly out of control over a city, A.J. Rocca hauntingly writes:
[We] find that this is not truly a witch’s story, but a ghost story. The ghost died in a fire on 6 May 1937, foreshadowing the fires of a war that would change the world forever. The ghost is called the Spirit of Freedom in the film, but its true name is LZ 129 Hindenburg, and it’s not the spirit of freedom but the ghost of modernity.4
So the material manifestation of Japanese society for me— despite all the glory of her bright packaging and dense infrastructure — is an aesthetic and satirical media culture that saturates the Petticoat Project. Vekllei is a ‘poor man’s Utopia’, inspired in part by my superficial understanding of a ‘poor man’s Japan'. Vekllei, like media representations of postwar Shōwa Japan, has a shadow of pacifism and shame about it (that idea that ‘all politics is sexual pathology’ occurs to me). These are deliberate aesthetic choices that reflect not landscape utopianism but character utopianism — the real colour of a constructed world that acts out the structure of mean ideology and culture-constructs. These ill-defined images of utopian society, and a rejection of landscape world-building, are excellent vehicles for utopian writing. After all, it is sustained engagement with utopia that betrays the totality of it5. What fascinates me particularly about Miyazaki’s unique utopian instincts is his recurring premise is essentially nostalgic and escapist — the aesthetic of a Miyazaki film is almost always midcentury or earlier, illustrating a time before Japan’s ‘modern century’. This is in stark contrast to the saccharine optimism of utopian socialists like Morris, Chernyshevsky, and Bellemy, telling stories of a future yet to come.
And that is to say nothing of the aesthetic qualities of a Japanese city! Tokyo is a wonderful glimpse of a retro-future as imagined by the 1980s — as though the economic crisis of the 1990s has since suspended time. Japan is clean and modern, but also retrofuturistic. The lifeblood of the city is in rebar and concrete as infrastructure. The people on the street are dressed in conservative items that go without the prudish connotations of similar Western fashion. Working men and women are suited traditionally, many with waistcoats. Such is the visual language of modern Japan. Young men sport tech-wear or innovative types of street-wear dominated by colour and comfort. General women’s fashion leans heavily on items popularly discarded in Western markets, at least until recently. Pleat or patterned skirts, blouses, cardigans, hosiery and socks, loafers and brogues, etc. are very common and provide a wonderful anecdotal rebuff to the outrageous images of ‘Harajuku girls’ and Lolita style that epitomise some ideas of Japanese fashion. The famous ‘sailor uniform’ has been largely phased out of junior and senior high schooling, replaced with Western-style blazers and ties. Tokyo is not ‘behind’ the rest of the world; that is not what it means to be retrofuturistic. In my eyes, it has disembarked from Western technological and fashion attitudes some time ago and has since progressed on its own collective cultural intuition, and has subsequently spent the last few decades exporting media, fashion and culture into the West. It’s a great thing to see in person, at the heart of it all.
Despite my qualms with modern Japanese consumer society, Vekllei is perched on a romanticised and fictitious Japanese aesthetic, and the country is enormously influential on the way I go about world-construction. With one sentence I will denounce the complexity of Japanese honorific language systems and in the other fawn over the mixed agricultural-residential suburbs that make up so much of the land outside of Tokyo’s city limits. Koka parks were inspired by these displays of community food production. The Vekllei Constabulary were created after research and experience with the Japanese Police Box system. Vekllei’s knotted network of trains and streetcars are reminiscent of Tokyo and Hiroshima. For all my public rejection of modern consumer society, and my begrudging participation in it, the Japanese qualities of Vekllei are valuable and are utopian in their own right — and so Tokyo remains one of the most important inspirations of Petticoat Society in the world.
So what of that dichotomy? Of deep ideological incongruities with Japanese consumer society, but an embarrassing affection for the mythological post-war aesthetic and Japanese culture? The truth of it is that Vekllei is first and foremost a collection of stories, and stories are the domain of the emotional. Wonderful, vague images of utopia — like washing corn in My Neighbour Totoro or an all-night writing session in Whisper of the Heart. My time in Tokyo introduced me to a wealth of these nostalgic feelings — of curiosity in a cauldron of social atomisation. Life in Tokyo is not without problems, and it is certainly not my perfect idea of utopia, but the intersection of the culture and promise of Japanese society, either in the past as alt-history or in the future as science fiction, has me coming back time and time again to better realise my own projects of utopia.
Andrews, W., 2016. Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture from 1945 to Fukushima. Oxford University Press. ↩︎
Wegner, P.E., 2010. " An Unfinished Project that was Also a Missed Opportunity": Utopia and Alternate History in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 5(2). ↩︎
Karatani, K., 1993. Origins of modern Japanese literature. Duke University Press. ↩︎
Rocca, A. (2017). Miyazaki’s Haunted Utopia: The Ghost of Modernity in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’. [online] PopMatters. Available at: https://www.popmatters.com/miyazakis-haunted-utopia-ghost-modernity-kikis-delivery-service-2495410503.html [Accessed 24 Dec. 2018]. ↩︎
Wegner, P.E., 1998. Horizons, Figures, and Machines: The Dialectic of Utopia in the Work of Fredric Jameson [with Comments]. Utopian Studies, 9(2), pp.58-77. ↩︎