Friday, September 10, 2010

More from the Mook: In Honor of Japanese Journalism

The cover of the Japanese Mook Book.

Special Friday fun! We present the fourth in a series of translations from the incredibly fabulous Japanese Mook Book. In honor of the excellence in Japanese journalism that fans have enjoyed for the last two weeks via the beautiful, funny, sensitive, and extraordinarily thought-provoking conversation between Johnny and Shigesato Itoi, today's selection is the equally thought-provoking opening essay from pages 10-11 in the Mook. Written by sports journalist Akiko Tamura, who also conducted the interviews featured in the Mook, the essay takes us behind the scenes of the MAC photo shoot and offers Akiko's perspective on Johnny, people's perceptions of him in the US and in Japan, and why now is exactly the right time to showcase Johnny through these unique photographs.

Why Feature Johnny Now?
Because of His Aesthetics Beyond Gender,
and His "Ririshisa"*

(*Note: This is the essay's title in the Mook, and there is no single-word English equivalent for "ririshisa." With the help of Akiko Nakata, Chie Hosokawa, and Yumi Hamano, I have come to understand that this single word embodies all of this: A young man who is clear, crisp, and fresh; who possesses dignity and class; and who faces life's challenges standing straight, with his chin up and his head held high. And now I see why Akiko Tamura chose this precise word to describe Johnny Weir.)

The MAC studio is in Chelsea, Manhattan. It is on the second floor of an office building, so customers rarely visit it, but professional makeup artists are coming in and out. It is a large flagship store with a shooting space, a typical loft you often see in Manhattan, with high ceilings and huge windows through which an abundance of sunlight pours in. Tara Modlin, Johnny Weir's agent, kindly invited me to sit in on the photo shoot.

This shoot was secretly held as a collaboration between Johnny's agent and MAC Cosmetics. Only a photographer, assistants, MAC representatives, a hairdresser, a makeup artist, and a stylist were there. Also in attendance were James Pellerito and David Barba, producers of Johnny’s reality series, Be Good Johnny Weir. Besides James and David, I was the only media person invited to the shoot. As of this writing—June 3, 2010—it had not been decided how to release in the US the pictures that the fashion photographer took that day.

On the day of the shoot, Johnny's hair and make-up were changed several times by the professionals, and he was photographed in a variety of different costumes. Especially in the make-up inspired by Aladdin Sane, David Bowie’s 1973 album, Johnny looked so glamorous, bewitching, beautiful, and natural—he gave me goose bumps.

Manhattan really fits Johnny as a photo-shoot background. What the staff intended to express in the pictures makes no difference to me one way or another, for I have lived in NYC since the '80s. Japanese people tend to imagine that all places in the US are like NYC; but the country as a whole is not necessarily the same as this city. In fact, most of it is much more conservative than many Japanese imagine. Some states still don't accept Darwinism because it is against the Bible, and prohibit the theory of evolution from being taught in the public schools of those states. Such conservative places are completely different from NYC, where men with facial make-up never attract attention or stand out from others in a crowd. NYC feels to me like a small island floating in the midst of this huge country.

Figure skating is a sport originally rather conventional and conservative as well. "Ladies should be feminine, and men should be masculine"—this is the basic rule of the sport. Female skaters were required to wear a skirt at competitions until 2004. Even now, male skaters are not permitted to compete in tights like those that ballet dancers wear, but instead are required to wear pants. Though this is not strictly adhered to, extreme revealing of skin or extraordinarily theatrical costumes are subject to scoring deductions. In the world of music, gender-crossing glam rock hit the height of its popularity some forty years ago. In the world of fashion, unisex outfits are accepted world-wide as totally normal. However, in figure skating, it is still considered taboo to cross the border between genders.

In a society like that of much of the US, how would people react to these pictures of Johnny—his face painted with gold, his lips dark red? The pictures seem to me to symbolize the conflicts that occurred for some time between the USFSA and Johnny, and the differences in their tastes that still exist.

"I can never change myself [in order] to be liked by someone." "It is impossible for me to become a person who came out of a cookie cutter." During the interview, Johnny repeated these. Even if what is natural for him rubs conservative people the wrong way, it cannot be helped, and it is nobody's fault. The "feeling" gap cannot be narrowed easily.

I think that in any time and in any place, more or less, artists have caused conflicts with the conservative elements of society. It is not certain yet if Johnny will leave behind a great name as an artist, but there is no doubt that he has both appeal and the powerful pull of someone who simply cannot be ignored—both of which touch the souls of all of us who live in the same age.

Fortunately, Japan’s background of art and culture includes Kabuki** and Takarazuka,*** which function as a base for people to appreciate the art of transgender. Compared to the US, far fewer people in Japan would dislike Johnny or attack him just because he can appear gender-neutral.

"I'm sure Japanese fans will accept Johnny as he is," Tara said, and she gave me permission to publish pictures that have not been revealed in any other part of the world.

Surrounded by the stylist, the hair and make-up artists, and the spotlights necessary for shooting, Johnny looked very relaxed, just being himself. His natural sense of humor, his sense of beauty—about which he is particular—and, needless to say, his good looks: They must be gifts from heaven, and Johnny should be congratulated on heaven's generosity to him.

Some people confuse his transgender appearance with a negative "womanishness," but these two are completely different. Tara says that Johnny is very gentle to women, and I personally know that to be true.

At Skate America 2008, Takahiko Kozuka won the gold, Johnny placed second, and Evan third. During the interview with the winners, I was on the stage with them as Takahiko's interpreter. After the interview, I had to step down from the stage to the floor—about a two-foot drop. Suddenly someone tenderly held my arm from behind. I turned to find Johnny there. He must be a genuine gentleman, as he seemed to do this automatically. To me, "strength" equals gentleness combined with the energy/power to help others.

At the Vancouver Olympics, Johnny performed almost perfectly in both the short program and the free skate. Nevertheless, he finished sixth. Many people, not only from his inner circle but also outsiders, said he should have placed higher. You will know how deep his disappointment was when you read the interview with Johnny [in this Mook]. However, in front of the TV cameras, he concealed his feelings and continued waving to his fans all over the world.

Johnny and Tara, as well as I, hoped to publish the pictures exclusively in this Mook, but I cannot imagine the results of that—how those who are concerned [with figure skating, etc., especially in the US] will react to them.

Still, Johnny is resolute, without currying favor with anyone or fearing anything:

"Whoever may think whatever. This is me."

To my eyes, he is a real man.

**Kabuki: The highly stylized classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate makeup worn by some of its performers. Since 17th century, Kabuki plays have been performed only by male actors. For more: Recommended: Tamasaburo’s The Heron Maiden ("The Swan" of Kabuki). Watch a trailer here.

***Takarazuka: The Takarazuka Review was founded in 1913. Women play all roles in lavish, Broadway-style productions of Western-style musicals, and sometimes stories adapted from shōjo [girls’] manga and Japanese folktales. For more: Recommended: The official Takarazuka Revue website—A brief history and information about their shows.

Twitter voting roundup!
(although I have to say that I'm not impressed
with the way Faxo is monitoring--or rather, not monitoring--
this voting stuff, so I'm kinda only half-heartedly following
these contests now but I still want my people to win ...)

Vote here for Johnny to win "Follow Me."
Current rank: #1
Voting ends tonight!

Vote here for Johnny to win "Mr. Twitter"!
Current rank: #11
21 voting days remaining.

Vote here for Gail Turley's blog
"WheresMyKoppy" to win "Best Blog"
Current rank: #5
7 voting days remaining.

New! Vote here for Johnny
(current rank: #9)
and here for JW Art Project
(current rank: #45)
to win "Best of Twitter"
21 voting days remaining.

You can own a fine art print of Johnny
perfect for any/every room in the house!
Prints of artist Peter Jurik's "Showtime!"
are available for purchase from his website.
More info here!

Yes! Johnny Is skating in Yu-Na Kim's fabulous show,
All That Skate, in Los Angeles on October 2!
Everything you need to know about tickets
and special gatherings of The Cabal
is right here!

Coming soon: More in the series
of translated interviews from the Mook Book
courtesy of the fabulous Akiko Nakata!

copyright 2010 / Binky and the Misfit Mimes / Lynn V. Ingogly / all rights reserved


germansoulmate said...

I like the meaning of "Ririshisa" which is in my opinion point on for what I perceive from Johnny, a very visceral feeling to me.

That´s an interesting essay which I need to read again and again to get all the things hidden in there and which escaped me at first reading.

Thanks to all involved for the great work.
Special thanks again to Johnny for being who he is and not faltering.

PumaJ said...

To me, these words by Akiko Tamura completely capture the core issues at the heart of hassles Johnny has received from the "mainstream" figure skating world.

"I think that in any time and in any place, more or less, artists have caused conflicts with the conservative elements of society". And: " figure skating, it is still considered taboo to cross the border between genders".

WheresMyKoppy said...

Once again a Japanese journalist has done a great job of writing about our Johnny, the first being Itoi Shigesato, the second being Akiko Tamura!

This is a wonderfully insightful and well-written piece, and I am certainly glad to have the opportunity to read a translation of it. I thank you MM and Akiko Nakata for all your hard work with this, and I certainly thank Akiko Tamura for writing it in the first place. There are some wonderful quotes and some wonderful descriptions here in this well-written piece. For example 'he has both appeal and the powerful pull of someone who simply cannot be ignored' fits Johnny Weir to a 'T'!

However, having said that, I think there's a little confusion or misunderstanding with the notion of the term 'trans-gender' here. Nothing in Johnny's appearance or actions or the photo shoots he's done has ever lead me to think he is trans-gender. There have been a couple of discussions on FB re this very issue; gay, straight, trans-gender, two-spirit, etc. Perhaps it's just a perception, but I just don't see him or anything he has done from that trans-gender perspective.

Maybe we just have different personal interpretations of the words, (the dictionary definition is 'a person appearing or attempting to be a member of the opposite sex, as a transsexual or habitual cross-dresser', and the medical definition is 'of, relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or a transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person's sex at birth'); however neither of those definitions applies to Johnny Weir. The ‘appearance’ in Johnny’s case only applies to some shots in a few photo-shoots, and not his daily life; but maybe I am reading too much into this? I don’t know!

The definition of 'ririshisa' as 'A young man who is clear, crisp, and fresh; who possesses dignity and class; and who faces life's challenges standing straight, with his chin up and his head held high.' as you have given it here is spot on for Johnny. In fact that definition could have been created specifically ABOUT Johnny! And the quote about Johnny’s good looks being a ‘gift from heaven’? Sigh…

‘To my eyes, he is a real man.’ Yes, Akiko Tamura, most definitely! It will be tough to read about his disappointment in the Vancouver results again…

Anonymous said...

"To my eyes, he is a real man."

To my eyes too. When meeting Johnny, I also noticed that he is so gentle and completely powerful at the same time. Its an incredible quality that isn't masculine or feminine, its just Johnny!

I think Johnny will leave his mark for future generations. He is an artist before his time and I think he will be remembered as one of the best figure skaters ever. Once people can get past their judgements, they will be able to appreciate the beauty in his skating that is not matched by anyone!

Thank you MM and Akiko for another beautiful translation from the Mook!!

Beth (twitter - bsontwit)

Misfit Mimes said...

@WheresMyKoppy: I think "transgender" may carry a different connotation for the Japanese than it does for an American audience. Here, in this essay, it is used more literally, to simply identify a person who crosses ("transports himself or herself across") the border between male and female ("genders"), back and forth--whether in art, as in Kabuki or Takarazuka, or in life. There is a distinction understood between "gender" and "sexuality" in this usage. In other Japanese pieces, he is referred to as "genderless" with that same idea--that he effortlessly and elegantly crosses society's clumsily drawn borders between male and female. Perhaps "gender-transcendent" might more closely convey the concept as understood by the Japanese to an American audience. Hope that helps!

germansoulmate said...

It confused me also a bit. However, with your explanation I understand what the essay is saying better.

germansoulmate said...

Got that from a friend I asked about it.
I think it´s very interesting.

WheresMyKoppy said...

I read the definition, and it is quite interesting. I like the point made it has nothing to do with sexual orientation or being gay or straight. How many times have I and others tried to get that across? Thank you!

Li said...

Love the interview! Thanks for the interview and translation! I think some of the confusion with the gender issue could be alleviated if the word "androgyny" or "androgynous" could be substituted for "cross-gender" or "trans-gender" in some of the sentences above, since to us "transgender" is more commonly used to imply one who is either wearing and performing in the clothing of the opposite sex (like Drag Queens, Johnny "doesn't do drag") or going through/gone through sexual re-assignment surgery ("trannies"). "Androgyny" ("neither clearly masculine nor clearly feminine in appearance") has been used to describe the younger David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and other rock stars in their makeup-wearing fashion-bending days (Adam Ant, Annie Lennox, Twiggy, Tokio Hotel, etc.) would seem that Johnny could be called androgynous without fear of confusion regarding whether he's happy with his male parts (which he's stated he is perfectly happy with previously). Perhaps it's just a matter of a slight difference of translation that would make it more clear for American eyes. For example, "Some people confuse his transgender appearance..." could easily read "Some people confuse his androgynous appearance..." and would be a little more to the point I think that Akiko Tamura was trying to make? Of course, just a suggestion, but it is my opinion that "androgynous" might be a more accurate word for the meaning implied.

akiko said...

I found Binky's explanation perfect. There is no connotation concerning sexual identity in "transgender" in my translation. The first "trans-gender" (referring to Kabuki and Takarazuka)could be replaced by "transcending gender" or "deleting the border between genders." The other one ("Some people confuse his transgender appearance with a negative "womanishness,") would be OK as "androgenous" as Li suggested.

germansoulmate said...

Akiko, there will always be words/constructs you can´t translate into one clear word. I experience that every day and my English teacher says so also. It always depends on the situation and the context. Thanks for all your work, Akiko. It is much appreciated.

Annarel Solosogni said...

Wonderful post ,thank you Misfit!