The True Japanese Art Form: “If it’s not Doublethink, it’s not CM”

[O]f all the various aspects of contemporary Japanese culture, surely advertising represents one of the most highly developed as a body of critical expression. Almost all Japanese possess a television, and most of these televisions are kept switched on from morning to night, making Japan arguable the number one TV nation. Certainly in terms of television commercials, the importance placed upon CM — “Commercial Messages,” as we Japanese call them — Japan is without parallel on the face of the earth.

The Japanese CM has something for everybody: the mass appeal and topicality of the yon-koma manga (“four-panel cartoon”), the grand romance of film, masterful artistry, the most refined techniques in visual communications, wordplay and copy that rivals poetry. All elements represent the highest achievement on every level, from the most trivial to the most ethereal, and quite often, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Pop musicians and trends are sold accessory to commercials, in Japan, where the notion of “Art” never existed to begin with, contemporary Western Art — that evolution of ideas and practices from Dada and Pop Art on through the birth of Neo-Dada to the Loss of the Artist and Breakdown of the Hierarchies — could never be transposed here as-is, at least not without straining or distorting. There simply is no special niche, no public for Art in Japanese society. Instead, we must look to the CM.

This, then, is our problematique: to discover why Japan’s finest contemporary art always surfaces at one remove in the world of advertising, and why advertising occupies a higher position in Japanese society than it does in the West. Quite possibly, the reasons are the same as why the aforementioned currents in Western contemporary art have all been reduced to styles to be copied by Japanese contemporary art. Which is to say, all concepts and values that the West typically ascribes to “Art” are more-than-subsumed in the Japanese CM. Moreover, for the Japanese, devoted more to the “arts of communication,”[1] CMs represent an invaluable barometer of the prevailing “info-climate,” as well as a convenient, comforting means of stratifying the slightest modicum of distinctions between the 100 million, all of whom believe, themselves to be “average.” Yet if we consider the rather all-inclusive range within CMs, this “mainstream” can easily assume airs of connoisseurship, 100 million intellectuals drawn to opera through the CM appearance of diva Kathleen Battle or revelling in the pleasures of classical music introduce to the hit parade via commercials. The same goes for discovering the architecture of Gaudi or the poetry of Rimbaud. Instant erudition en masse. What’s more, even real European nobility are seen drinking instant coffee in Japanese CMs.

Again, CMs offer something for everybody. For Japanese males, CMs are the most ready media source of cute girls. (Last year, all of Japan was talking about  a gruesome series of killings of little girls by an “average” psychopath with a collection of 6000 lolicon “Lolita Complex” and blood-and-gore videotapes — and a taste for reading CM magazines.[2])

For females, CMs present a paradisiacal view of society. Because unlike in the real world, the women in commercials always come out on top. In a CM series for Ebara Grilled Meat Dip, a fearsome housewife is seen wolfing down mountains of meat with her children while the master of the house gets only vegetables. In CMs for the moth repellant Gon, idle housewives attend an adult education class where they recite along with their instructor, “In the drawer — Gon! In the drawer — Gon! Hubby’s gone too, and that’s fine with me.” In an Asahi Synthetics’ Powerboard house-siding CM, a lone husband away on a work assignment is shocked to read his child’s letter, “The strange man who comes visiting every day says Powerboard homes are nice homes.” A Seven-Eleven convenience store chain CM has grown businessmen behaving like little boys: “Hey wanna go t’work?” “Nah, think I’ get bweakf’st at Sev’n ’even first.” “Gee, swell!” (These commercials, all from 1985 on, succeed in venting Japanese housewives’ true feelings, yet also are favorites with the wage-slave husband they satirize.)

In just this way, CMs constitute a vital forum followed closely by the entire population. Each and every Japanese gets to be a critic, far out-stripping any other more selective-address genre of criticism, where in literature, film or art. (So-called art criticism hardly even exists, let alone matters.) Even music and sports appreciation come out seemingly minor by comparison. Whereas it’s rare to find someone with ears for both heavy metal and chamber music, or a fan of tennis who’s equally avid about baseball, CMs have near-universal appeal. Who ever heard of anyone who says yes to commercials with teen-romance storylines, but refuses to watch anything that shows housewives extolling the benefits of detergent? CMs are just too commonplace; they are sworn by code never to patronise the viewer.

Nor is there any choosing. A Tokyo TV station may run 600 CMs a day, the vast majority timed at 15 seconds or less. Compared to the 30 or 60 second commercials more typical of America and Europe, these Japanese CMs fly past like bullets, in less time than it takes to view a painting. This undoubtedly says a lot about the Japanese character. CMs, like the products they sell, must be total packages — pre-processed, complete and fast-acting. There is only one choice here: keep the TV on or turn it off. It’s all or nothing. Besides, what other common topics are 100 million “average” people going to have to talk about anyway?

In fact, CMs enjoy such immense popularity in Japan that advertising comes to seem less an accessory and more a primary industry in itself, an important creative output generating yet further spin-off media. From wholly dedicated CM magazines to regular mention in the 50 million daily newspapers and 1100 million other magazines, discourse on CM takes many forms. Japan’s leading “intellectual” newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun features a weekly colum. CM Watching by Yukichi Amano, Chief Editor of the monthly Kokoku Hihyo (Advertising Critique), as well as another weekly column, Cheerful Consultations by major copywriter Ramo Nakajima. Both claim a huge readership, the former known for his skill at educing a picture of the world at large from a single CM, while the latter adopts a tried and true CM format to disccuss eccentric queries from readers. Cheerful drivel, to be sure, yet Nakajima’s media presence is telling. In any other country, the persons behind-the-scenes in advertising remain invisible; in Japan, they are familiar household names. Where else but Japan do hit commercial makers step forward and become stars? Ask any Japanese: there’s top copywriter Shigesato Itoi, and CM “creators” Toru Kawasaki, Kishi Nakahata, Kotaro Sugiyama and Taeyong Lee, to list but a few. This “up-front-behind-the-scenes” awareness is paradigmatic of the critical doublethink relationship that exists in Japan between the media and the viewer.

Commercial everywhere are supposed to amaze and charm; the maker’s art consists in cleverly fooling the viewer. But unlike American commercials that stress tangibles in order to demonstrate the superior features of the product, Japanese CMs generally employ a more oblique strategy of first creating an intriguing atmosphere or seductive image, then nonchalantly floating the company name into frame. Often working by pure association, the product may never actually appear on the screen. Japanese consumers can’t be convinced to buy something on its lasts-a-lifetime merits alone. The pattern is rather to make temporary purchases for later replacement, the urge to buy coming in a flash of recognition. The seller is at great advantage. It’s all a question of hypnotically inducing that “flash.” The techniques of amazement traditionally fall into several categories:

  • Unexpected Situations — Automobiles on ski jumps, bulls charging through metro stations
  • Startling Visuals — Multi-layered synthetic images are particular favourites
  • Casting Coups — Villains as rough-cut heros, “unavailable” major personalities

In this last category, we have some unusual finds. A silent, kimono-clad Woody Allen, who would never dream of commercially endorsing anything in America, appeared in a number of CMs for Seibu Department Store, with the catch-phrase “Delicious Living.” Josef Beuys likewise trudged silently through a snowy forest for Nikka Whisky, an on-screen credit line reading “CM appearance fee will be used for the Greens.” Sly Stallone made an appearance for Nippon Ham — good thing the Japanese don’t know the English connotations of “ham” — and Arnold Schwarzenegger slurped away at Cup Ramen instant noodles. This gai tare (“foreign talent”) line of Japanese CM has a long history. In fact, so many foreign stars have put in appearances that by now faces alone are not amazing enough. It’s no longer who you use, but how you use them. When the idiosyncracies of David Byrne and David Bowie failed to be brought to prime advantage, there was hardly any mention of them in the CM talksheets. Whereas a recent success story featured George Lucas in a major CM series contract with Panasonic, Lucas appearing together with his robots and alien creatures above the copy “Always Something New” and a microscopic brandmark.

Other variations on this theme include the hen na gaijin (“strange foreigner”) and the kawaii dobutsu (“cute animal”). One of the first things anyone notices about Japanese CMs is the predominance of Westerners, especially Caucasians CM makers and viewers alike thrive on a regular diet of “exotic” blonde-haired, blue-eyed models (Japanese Coca Cola CMs conversely drew attention for showing Japanese in a “fresh new light”). It doesn’t stop there, though: this appetite for the strange and different partakes of rarer delicacies when, stranger still, the foreigners speak Japanese — however haltingly — or know a thing or two about Japanese culture. The CM industry reserves these “strange foreigners” for gags in much the same way as curious animals are paraded across the screen in jest. A Mitsubishi  automobile CM (1984) featuring the Australian frill-necked lizard caused a huge commotion, leading to a rare animal boom of such proportions that it only stopped after considerable international denunciation of the illegal trade in endangered species.

Japanese stars are by no means exempt, either. Actors, singers and personalities all take CMs very seriously, planning commercials into their careers from the very beginning. CM appearances are seen as particularly strategic means of solidifying or changing their image, reaching out for broader recognition, donning glasses for comedic effect, even shedding make-up to come across as more down-to-earth. Sharp-tongued funny man Beat Takeshi played a brat slapped by his mother, the CM drawing such criticism and comparisons that he seized the opportunity to publish a novel of childhood confessions, which in turn exploded into a TV drama. Baseball pitcher Taku Egawa, accused of pulling strings to get onto the team of his choice, successfully utilised a succession of very silly CM appearances to catapult himself into public favour. CMs thus also serve as important indicators of the tides of opinion among fandom.

In one of Egawa’s sillier CMs for the impossibly-named patent medicine Menfrahap (1982), we see an overly wholesome family scene in which a father, elder brother (Egawa) and younger brother are seated in a parlour. “You suppose this Menfrahap really works?” wonders the elder brother, whereupon the father and younger brother berate him, over-righteously; “We’ll have none of that language in this house!” “You apologise to the Menfrahap this instant!” The elder brother cowers and apologises to the product forthwith, and the family is overly happy and wholesome once again.

CMs patterned along this line form one solid maintstream that gradually came to the fore during the latter half of the 70s, establishing Toru Kawasaki as a major CM hitmaker. Ever portraying overly wholesome pictures of the family and society, ever staging overly polite exchanges the syrupy sweetness of these mini-satires laces through the broadcast day with cutting acidity.

Japanese television has long brainwashed itself into “socially redeeming” values in programming. An endless cavalcade of pap, light entertainment, family drama, mindless variety, up-tempo pop song, cheerful news… “Neither poison no medicine,” as the saying goes.

There is virtually nothing on any channel that treats the viewer as an adult. No serious political discussions, no broaching of issues. This has nothing to do with censorship, at least not officially. The overriding determinant here is the sponsor and the stringencies of jishu kisei, so-called “self-regulation.” For a while, theoretically there is very little you can’t show on Japanese TV,[3] the sponsor is god and TV stations can’t afford to inch left or right. Sponsors refuse to take risks, so everyone must play safe. This is the very image of a country where the ultra-long ruling Liberal Democratic Party would have us believe “Everyone is Content.” Indeed, it is in part the media structure that keeps them in power.

Under the circumstances, certain CM makers put up considerable resistance to this whitewashed image of the family and society. Working within the system, the tendency is to caricaturise these media constructs and slip in a backhanded comment in the hopes of winning popular recognition that will both placate the sponsor and allow further liberties next time. With a rapid turnover of successful commercials, the best CM “creators” go about steadily enhancing their charisma. Recently, Toru Kawasaki has been seen putting in appearances on an outrageous omedy programme that sends up whole sectors of society.[4] While Shigesato Ito, who in the 60s student movement wrote copy for anti-U.S. Defense Pact placards and has long since been denounced by leftists of his generation as a running dog of capitalism, rather coyly uses that leverage to pour out a flood of seemingly innocent catchphrases — “Mysterious…I love it!” “Even more than that” — which place him in high regard as a cultural antenna “providing concepts for the times,” “grasping the essence of things.”

This past year, the world’s largest printers, Dai Nippon printing, launched a much-discussed corporate advertising campaign during student job-hunting season that showed nothing but the letters DNP over a field of white noise, in which a speaker blared a sound-collage of static and in-house announcements while a narration went on about account statements. It was as if the station had been “wave-jacked” by a phantom broadcast. Or again this year, Japan Housing Loan commissioned a special CM dedicated to Japan’s over 2 million VCR owners. On first viewing, all you notice is the disclaimer “Watch this CM later in slo-mo.” When played back on a newer VCR with single-frame advancing, however, there appears the flash-message, “So you really took the time to freeze-frame? So glad you did!” followed by hidden frames of everything from the company description to a breakdown of loan rates to a picture of a bathing beauty. Such techno one-upmanship is both impressive and curious: how is it that CMs might now presume ot alienate those without the latest video equipment? The truth is that already by around 1985 the Japanese had acquired such media literacy, it was said “The public has begun to fool CMs.”[5]

Commercial television in Japan dates from August 28, 1953 when Nihon TV first broadcast. That day also marks the advent of the first Japanese CM. It was a “Noon Time Announcement” for the present-day Seiko Company. It was aired, film backwards, no sound, for a mere three-seconds before it was pulled off.

Today, some 36 years later, now that Japanese CMs have laid down their basic structures together with every conceivable possibility based upon them, all these techniques of “amazement,” the studio backstage with all the staff exposed to the public eye, the viewer has become impossible to fool. The public has ceased to be a general public, but an enclave of critics 100 million strong. Rather, what’s happening now is that these 100 million critics are re-donning the look of a “public” so as to play out CMs in real life.

One of last year’s major heart-throbs was the “one bowl of noodles” routine. An unremarkable children’s story introduced by some media personality or another, a mother and child go into a noodle shop and order one bowl of noodles to share. The shop owner takes pity on them and serves them a one-and-a-half bowl  portion each time they come back. This continues for a number of years, then they stop coming. When at long last they do show up again, they each order one bowl. Nothing to it, but it had the nation in tears.

On closer inspection, this story reveals origins in the world of CMs. A plotline kicking around from more than one instant ramen noodle CM, as phoney as the phenomenal sight of the whole country in tears. (Talk about overly-wholesome!) The media offered various analyses of just why everyone should be so taken with this story, but the most interesting commentary to be put forward was that “At least we Japanese showered ourselves that we can still be moved by this kind of story,” a paean to a “reawakening of forgotten feelings.” How ironic that the Japanese “economic animal” who forged ahead on the sheer drive to possess material thing should now be sentimentally reawakened by the “hominess” of the very CMs that were created to make us buy things in the first place!

Thus the real doublethink began from when CM makers had to still further amaze a public already savvy to the tricks of the trade. Nonetheless, “the trade” has yet another level. Japan claims what is perhaps the largest advertising company in the world — Dentsu — and its rival second, Hakuhodo. These two — inclusive of their subsidiary agencies — control approximately 80% of advertising. A statistic made more palpable when we consider that the CM pros’ pick of 44 out of the 50 best CM productions of the year 1988, as cited in Commercial Photo magazine, all passed through either Dentsu or Hakuhodo. Needless to say, both maintain very keen information-gathering networks just to keep tabs on happenings the world over. So informed are they, in fact, that rumours persist that the CIA’s Tokyo base of operations is located, not in any government headquarters, but within the main offices of Dentsu.

Employing their info networks to the fullest, the two companies decide between themselves the overall “theme’ to the trends of the entire nation that year. (The 1989 themes, for instead, were “The Age of the Great Voyager — Me” for Dentsu and “Hormones for Excitement” for Hakuhodo; those for 1988 “Quest Year 1 — From Awareness to Will” and “The Age of Lustre” respectively — who writes their copy?) Based on these themes, the “Big Boys” mobilize to steer events along the chosen course. If the public were ever to run off these guiderails, the stock market would go crazy. Slowly but surely they must force things into the predetermined thematic mould. The effort is to keep complacent a people who know their CMs backwards and forwards.

They have their ways. One is to change the name of the game and wink, “We all know by now that CMs don’t sell dreams, don’t we?” The most famous example of this is a 1983 CM series created by Toru Kawasaki for Suntory Draft Beer Party Kegs with a special new “Micron Perculator” pour spout, in which a sumo wrestler shows up out of nowhere in a typical household and hands a keg to the man of the house who immediately beams, “Now, this is just the sort of idea the general public will go for!” Or a quiz show format CM in which the Emcee asks a TV personality, “Why does the new Suntory Draft Party Keg have a Micron Perculator pour spout?” to which the award-winning response is “Because that’s the company directive!” These two fairly mark the beginnings of doublethink CMs.

Actually, our very consciousness of CM codes made for a certain nihilistic taste in iconoclastic commercials. It has long been recognised that the Japanese as a people seem to do their best when working within strict codified circumstances; the rigid 5-7-5-7-7 syllable tanka poetic formats come to mind straightaway. But the 15-second CM also draws upon this genius. Nonetheless, every so often the slightest breach in these codes will cause a scandal. In one famous example a House Instant Ramen CM (1985) showed a young woman and a girl chiming, “We do the making…” while a boy slurps the noodles saying “And I do the eating.” When aired during International Women’s Year at the peak of the women’s liberation movement in Japan, this CM became an instant target and was taken off the air. Or in a more recent Gon CM, the black humor line “Really Granpa! Pretending to be dead again!” proved a code infringement and was changed to “Pretending to be asleep.” Still, rules are made to be broken, especially when the adventure stirs up interest among otherwise bored mediaphiles. A series of Kondansha Mystery Paperback CMs (1984) posed stars as murder victims under the copy “Stabbings ¥360, Poisonings ¥480, Shootings ¥400.” Likewise, a previously taboo scene of the abject poverty of homecoming World War II soldiers figured in a CM for the chemical pocket warmer Donto (1985) where two ragged infantrymen shivered “D-d-donto give m-m-me.” Further war associations were brought out in a Mita Copier series (1985-6) that had a woman personality viewing the city streets from a Tokyo skyscraper when suddenly an aircraft carrier plows through the scene toppling buildings in its path. Considering this was aired mainly during special New Year’s programming, it garnered all the more notoriety. More recently, CMs have even begun to satirize Japanese business expansionism, which by rights, Japan should want to justify and feel good about; a Kinchol insecticide CM series (1988 on) cast an all-star line-up of hen na gaijin personalities as foreign employees taking part in an all-too-Japanese “staff morning address” and “staff banquet,” then had them say, “We got ourselves into one weird company, didn’t we?” This “tonic” jesting is on the verge of masochistic.

The most talked about CMs of 1988, though, were for Nissan Motors. A series of three preview CMs — “teasers” in advertising jargon — combining an announcement on the upcoming release of the new Zefiro together with a total corporate image plug in the form of an innovative question addressed to the car. The questions were posed by one famous person or another, such as a major folk singer, famous for his refusal to appear on television, who asked, “You in good spirits?” over the doggerel keyword Kuuneruasobu(Ito Shigesato’s running together of kuu “eat,” neru “sleep” and asobu “play,” to suggest that all else takes care of itself, a motto suitable for the new leisure class seen as the car’s potential buyers). The campaign, if hardly “socially redeeming,” was hailed as having its finger on the pulse of the times.

There’s a funny coda to this story. From the latter half of 1989, Japanese media underwent a period of jishuku “self-restraint” during the Emperor’s prolonged illness and subsequent death. For half a year, the lid was clamped on anything that vaguely partook of a happy, festive mood. Thanks to which advertising had to retool many a good many existing CMs. You in good spirits, indeed.

CMs sometimes do get ahead of themselves, for example, when a liquid-fiber dietary drink Fiber Mini CM (1988) parodied Max Headroom before the actual TV series ever hit Japanese airwaves. Sometimes CMs even lambaste their own norms. In one CM for the toothpaste Demure Sunstar (1985) Beat Takeshi plays an also-ran comedian in the CM role of a doctor. He announces, “This is young Master Suzuki from Itabashi. Here we have his usual toothpaste and here we have Demure Sunstar. We’re going to see which he chooses.” When the boy reaches for the other brand Takeshi gives him a good whack on the head and proclaims, with a nervous grin, “See? It’s Demure Sunstar!” One premise here, it should be mentioned, is that, unlike Americans and their advertising, Japanese characteristically avoid open conflicts. CMs here hardly ever mention Brand X or make direct comparisons — and the Japanese are all quite aware of this. We cannot help but wonder what as yet unknown forefronts of taste remain to be sent up this coming CM season. Only Dentsu and Hakuhodo know for sure.

In overview, CM “creators” may be said to have reached a social contract with the public: “This is only a commercial, you know that and we know that, so please evaluate our efforts within this context — as far as that goes.” And based on this simple pact, the doublethink game has gone pretty far.

In Japan, the deconstruction of language, the deconstruction and Vertremdung of the everyday — these are not confined to the intellectual community. CM makers, in order to up the stakes of the game with the public, are constantly churning the stuff out. The situation may be straight out of home dramas or detective suspense, the actors may well even be the very same, and yet somehow they keep trumping viewer expectations: “Bet you didn’t think we could do this!”

We can thus trace a certain deconstructivist line running through Japanese CMs. In an Asahi Beer CM (1975), a man downs his brew and recites, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration — like Edison said, eh Iwata?” and then laughs inanely. Iwata? Who is he? In an S&B Japanese-style Curry CM (1979), a customer in a diner asks the man behind the counter, “This isn’t ordinary curry, is it?” and is told, “No, it isn’t regular curry,” whereupon the customer mutters, “Mama. . .” No comment is necessary. In a Suntory Shochu liquor CM (1983) , an actress sits alone drinking and talking to herself. “. . .And then, know what Octopus says? Says there’s this girl he likes. Octopus starts to cry. Starts crying like it’s all over. I mean, it’s tough for humans, but it’s tough for an Octopus, too…” What was all this “Octopus” nonsense about? Nobody had a clue. In a National Inverter fluorescent light CM (1988), a sombre-looking man walks alone down a dark alleyway holding a lightbulb over his head, stepping cautiously in time with the tune he softly sings to himself. “If you must change, In-ver-ter, National In-ver-ter.” Or again, in a more recent CM (1989) for the same, a tutor sits in a dimly-lit room singing, equally dimly, “The best thing for your eyes, an Inverter — beep! — smart or not, can’t tell — beep, beep!” while his girl pupil merely switches the desk lamp on and off.

A quasi-semiotic variant on this line was picked up in a Seven-Eleven convenience store CM (1988) with an on-screen diagram. The route straight home from the station is shown as 300m, whereas from station to Seven-Eleven is 200m and from Seven-Eleven home another 200m, yet even so it’s better to go by the Seven-Eleven. Obviously something about the presentation in formula struck a Japanese funny bone, because people were writing in “unable to sleep at night” just thinking about it.

This string of offbeat CMs must surely represent the emergence of a genre of homegrown absurdism in a country that never had a tradition of non-sequitur humour. The closest thing to it in Japan are the mini-spectacles put on by a wave of fringe performance groups. Or is it the other way around? These young, mainly Tokyo troupes take elements of the contemporary Western theater of Vertremdung as their mainstay, liberally tossing them in a salad of non-stop antics, visual gags and rapid-fire wordplay. The affinities with CMs do not go unnoticed: Dentsu and Hakuhodo follow these troupes very closely, often recruiting new CM personalities from their midst.  Art remains, as ever, a minor testing ground for the advertising big time.

The ultimate irony in the post-Art world of the Japanese CM, however, is that as the stakes of the game continue to escalate, the massive CM industry finds itself caught up in its own inertia, running faster and faster to stay at its optimum “now,” needing to be always one step ahead of its own media-control experiment. CM productions have already mastered that critical one remove from Art; is the “twice removed” CM now upon us? Consider when, a few years back, production designers deftly slipped the famous garden scene from L’Annee passe a Marienbad into a CM precisely because there was no revival of the film that year. This is anti-pattern thinking, seeing the blindspot, not to mention a surface-glossing of the already surface-glossed methods of Robbe-Grillet. Consider, moreover, that when JVC Victor wanted an H.R. Gieger-like futuristic cyberscape for one their CMs, the production designers had to do the Austrian artist one better by creating scenes that were “more real than the original.” Where does the simulation stop and the “real” Art begin?

Successful CMs can no longer just predict what’s coming; they are what’s coming.

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