I remember very clearly the day that Children of Enlightenment was born. A friend of mine, living in my old room in a Stanford co-op, heard I was driving down from Berkeley. “Come over,” he said. “There’s something you need to see.” I knew better than to ask what it was. As soon as I walked in the door, he slapped a book into my hand. It was glossy, a heavy trade paperback. On the front were two people, a boy and a girl, dressed in the most outrageous and flamboyant costumes I had ever seen – he in a blue coverall with giant blond spikes and blue goggles, she in pink boots and stockings, a tartan skirt, and rainbow hair. They were standing not on a stage or in a studio, but on a sidewalk, staring directly into the camera with looks of insouciant confidence. Sideways text proclaimed the title of the book: “Fruits.” Opening the book, I found it to be nothing but photo spreads of similar kids, arching their (shaved, dyed) eyebrows out from the pages.
“I’m going to move to Japan,” I said, seconds later.
“I know,” said my friend, and grinned.
By the time I moved to Japan in 2003, the epically flamboyant styles depicted in Aoki Shoichi’s magazine Fruits had mostly gone out of style, as shrinking household budgets forced young people to forsake big-ticket street clothing items (those pink boots must have cost over $200) for cheap homemade and DIY fashions. But the Japanese youth counterculture was just getting underway. It’s hard for Americans, with our crime-ridden, decaying inner cities, to imagine the kind of thriving youth districts that lie only a 10-minute walk away from the biggest train stations in Tokyo and Osaka. It’s hard for us to picture the sheer density of used and new clothing stores, rock clubs, dance clubs, music shops, tiny galleries, artsy cafes, specialty bookstores, and avant-garde hairstylists that crowd into Harajuku or Ame-Mura. But they exist. For nearly three years, these districts were my favorite haunts; but I discovered that they were only the tip of the fruit-flavored iceberg.
Something exciting is happening in Japan. Western writers, remembering the glory days of the 80s when Sony ruled the world, often state (or assume) that Japan is a country in decline – aging, spent, with sclerotic economy and drifting politics. But Western young people know better. Every year the manga section of Barnes and Noble grows in size, and more Midwestern girls are spotted dressing like girls from Tokyo. Every year more Japanese pop culture invades our vocabulary – “otaku,” “anime,” “kawaii.” But the pop offerings that entrance America’s teenagers represent only the advance scouting force of the army of cultural innovation that is gathering strength in the Land of the Rising Sun. One day soon (we can hope), the full power of Japanese young people’s expressive innovation may sweep over us like a candy-colored tsunami.
That is where Children of Enlightenment comes in. Japan, as a nation, is famous for being culturally isolated; in order to make the West aware of what is going down in that island nation, those of us who have seen the counterculture must bring knowledge of the movement back across the Pacific and spread it to all the American kids who will eat it up (as other countries ate up American youth culture in the 20th century). And the older generation of Japanese folks – who are even more ignorant of their children’s activities than American moms and dads of the 60s – likewise need a clearer picture of the revolution that is happening under their noses. Children of Enlightenment (whose title is a similar pun when translated) will help provide that picture.
The purpose of Children is to get inside the Japanese counterculture. I want to take the audience on the same journey of exploration I once traveled – first to the rock clubs and fashion shops and art galleries, and then deeper, to the cafes and the clubs and the studios where the kids make and share their magic, and to their homes (whose decorations often put the galleries to shame). The film will show not just the beauty of Japanese young people’s creations – though it will certainly show a lot of that – but the complexity of their philosophies and life outlooks. It will explore not just the end product, but the hows and the whys, the social and personal factors that in a generation have turned a people stereotyped as suit-wearing corporate drones into some of Earth’s most funky flower-children.
Children of Enlightenment will take its audience to the places and the events that are rapidly becoming household names among more artistically inclined young Americans – Harajuku, Fuji Rock, Tokyo Design Festa. It will take them to less famous, but equally hip and happening places, smaller events that push even the Japanese envelope. To those who have never experienced the Japanese underground scene firsthand, I can only say: Get ready.
Making this film has not been easy, of course – filmmaking never is – but it has already been amazingly rewarding. Though I’ve always been inclined to ask probing questions – “What kind of place do you live in?” “What made you decide to open a clothing store?” – Children has given me the opportunity to go deeper than the bounds of politeness had allowed. I’ve learned a lot about the hardships that the hip kids face – the economic and social price of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. And I’ve been able to meet the older artists who carried the torch of creativity before it was cool. The final product will not be quite what I expected when I woke up and emailed my friend Peter and said “Let’s make a documentary about the Fruits kids!”…but of course that’s part of the fun.
When my friend shoved a photo book into my hands in a Stanford co-op dorm room, a process began. A desire appeared, a need within me, to capture the beautiful thing I saw in those glossy pages and bring it back home and show it to everyone I knew. Children of Enlightenment is the culmination of that process. For its Western audience, the film will be a deeper peek into a world that many will come to admire and love. For me, it’s the final step in moving to that world.