The Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku is one of the ugliest and most pointless buildings I’ve yet seen in Tokyo. A giant clunky trapezoid on 4 legs in grey concrete, fissured with juts and wedges and all manner of go-faster stripes, layered with a shrine-like blocky hat, faced with a child-like mosaic paddling pool, dashed round with white umbrella-like gazebos, it adds up to precisely nothing. It’s just ugly, and pointless- in no way calling back the Edo period, or for that matter the Jomon period, or the Meiji period, or any period from any history in the world. It’s just a geometric shape festooned with other decorative shapes- totally blah.
Edo-Tokyo Museum- on stilts.
I’ll freely confess I’ve been moved recently by the writings of Alex Kerr in his eye-opening book- Dogs and Demons: the Fall of Modern Japan. I read it as a first step in educating myself on the Japanese economic Bubble of the late 80’s, so I could better understand why the haikyo I go to are so numerous and so absent of stewardship. I gobbled it up in equal parts recognition and outrage. So many of the negative things I’d thought about Japan but just accepted- the in-numerable pointless roads and bridges in the countryside, hillsides slathered in concrete, concrete-paved rivers and concrete tetrapod scattered beaches, infantilisation of culture with ‘kawaii’ as king and manga and anime the chief cultural products, zero interest rates in banks, ugly as sin cities that all look the same- so that a trip to Kyoto is much the same as a trip to any suburban area in Tokyo- homogeneity of culture and race, and on, all of those things I’d also noticed- he explicitly points out and explains, causing me to gasp with disgust at least once a chapter at all of the blind and feckless waste an immoveable bureaucracy has bestowed upon a sleeping people.
Signs to the museum, right of the JR station, blocking the view of the Kokugikan- the sumo hall. Awful.
If I’m to try and summarize Alex Kerr’s findings, which are many, I’d say there’s just something wrong with Japanese culture. Or perhaps- from my limited knowledge of the matter- that there’s something wrong with the Japanese reaction to the world, and the culture that resulted from that clash. But if we extend that back- we have to assume something is wrong with ancient Japanese culture as well because it was ancient culture that believed in and enforced isolation.
But I know I shouldn’t say that, as it’s gross cultural shortsightedness and probably remarkably naive. That’s how the book made me feel though- and how it now colors my view of some of these government-built ‘monuments’- as Kerr calls them. It’s something like the way I felt when reading the book Catch 22- a book replete with examples of insanely backwards bureaucracy justifying its own existence and corruption-rife budget by citing paradoxical rules and quotidian dogma- a con artists dreamland plenipotential in the possibilities to fleece money from people who just don’t think to ask where it’s going.
In that sense the way I felt on reading both books matched- and in that sense there’s something seriously wrong with that kind of culture. I won’t try and say it doesn’t exist elsewhere- if I read a book about the same thing in England or the US I’d be equally appalled. I just happen though to live in Japan, and see the evidence as Kerr explains it.
Angles- grey day.
So why do I dislike this building? Kerr mentions it in his book- so I’m probably just rehashing his ideas- but it’s totally a-contextual. Designed by Kiyonori Kikutake- who also built the Sofitel Hotel I pined after in previous posts- it could lay claim to context- as being one tier in a Japanese tree of life lightning bolt. But it doesn’t look like that, so it’s irrelevant. It’s just a big faceless granite dog with an obscene red pipe jutting down from its hindquarters. It’s shape for the sake of shape- which I can certainly appreciate sometimes- but in a building designed to commemorate the past?
Red tube jutting from the hind-quarters.
Ok then- you art Nazi- what about the Louvre? Isn’t that modern art enshrining the old? Well, yes. But that is beautiful. And it also signifies something- as anyone who’s watched the Da Vinci Code knows- it embodies ideas of the the masculine and the feminine almost touching, but never quite. And that’s a gallery for all kinds of art, ancient to modern. This was a museum for a rich and deep culture of a certain time in the past. And it looks like a horny dog.
Paddling pool in front.
Goldfish swim- so beautiful- so like the Louvre!
I’d lay off comparing it to the Louvre- but on this site the museum director actually makes that comparison himself. Also he compares it to the British Museum. On both counts is he not only dead wrong when it comes to the building itself, he’s even wronger about the contents.
Candidate city. Good luck!
Phallic escalator. I didn’t ride.
Not a Swastika- a sign for a shrine.
Bits of junk on display outside.
Excavated blast furnaces. I’m surprised they didn’t just toss all these away.
So what about the inside did I dislike? Well, first off it’s poorly designed, so even in the lobby we (me and Su Young, after returning from watching some sumo) didn’t know where to go to buy a ticket- plus it felt cramped with low ceilings and shoddy lights- like some old dowdy library that was once a disco. After buying tickets we had to loop round the corner, accidentally wandering into an unrelated elevator-area. It wasn’t just us who made that mistake either- a chap followed after us moments later.
Don’t get lost, now.
We went up to the 6th floor, and beheld the big empty space inside the dog trapezoid. and it was just a big, mostly empty, cavernous grey under-lit space. The walls bare concrete, the carpet grey to match. It felt 50% empty. It felt like the old park Toshimaen near Ikebukuro- almost a haikyo in its own right, a theme park on its last legs, never popular, trying to dress its muttony stringiness up with lamb-like frivolity.
What do I mean? I mean- where was the history? How can you possibly compare this place to the British Museum, a mammoth and multi-generational facility jam-packed with the history and memorabilia of centuries of war, culture, and conquest. This place was all models. Tiny models and life-size models. Most of the empty space was filled up with a big model of a bridge we walk across (wow, a bridge!) and two full-sized buildings. They looked like something out of Disney, but not nearly as interesting in the all-pervading gloom.
Scattered imbetween the big models were the little models, of old Edo streets filled with lovingly hand-painted and crafted figures right out of old Edo. Wonderful. But they’re too small to appreciate- so here are some tiny binoculars you can use to look at them more closely.Sure- go ahead.
Really. Binoculars- in the dim light, awkward to use, head-ache inducing to really try and see something up close, and ultimately unrewarding when you do. Mutton dressing itself up in tech-thrills as lamb.
Then there were the display cases. Lining the walls, 10 feet high glass, with white backs. I’m describing the cases because that’s mostly what I saw. In those huge cases, there were a few bits and bobs of history- probably mocked up, possibly genuine. The space inside the display cases was about 80% empty.
This was maybe the best screen-painted mural.
At the bottom of the case- all white space for 9 feet above it.
A nice model of some ships.
Ships in close.
So what would I like to have seen? I don’t know- maybe some real history. Instead of a few pristine and uninteresting buildings and little models- have me walk down a few cramped and narrow wooden streets, each recreated with real shops on the inside. Bring the ceiling down so I don’t feel like I’m in a mausoleum. Get intimate. Design your display cases according to your material. Get some material! Instead of signs on the open-plan floor telling me where to go, immerse me- make me drawn by the content, limit my options or where I walk. Invest more money in sourcing decent content. Commission some paintings of old Edo in a more modern style. Enough with the models!
On the whole- I felt like I was in the Millennium Dome again. A government-conspired building with no real purpose in sight. They packed the Millennium Dome with a bunch of junk- let’s face it. I went there, and it was fun ribald junk. But they sort of knew it was junk. This place is passing itself off as real history, and has its director out there pimping it as the real thing. That’s the real tragedy. Fail.
Location – Ryogoku
Entry – 600 yen.
Facts – Completed in 1993.
Architect – Kiyonori Kikutake, the same guy who built the Sofitel Hotel.
Highlights – Leaving.
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