Spring 2004

Scent from the Future

The hauntings, vanishings, and scents of Japanese Futurism

Miryam Sas

Aging futures have a special scent. In Tokyo, one of them smells like coffee. Old-fashioned grinders and French presses surround the quietly reading customers in the Caravan Cafe in Iriya, a neighborhood in a corner of the shitamachi, Tokyo’s old “downtown.” With its partly empty concrete high-rises and the 10-story furniture store, Hayamizu, that recently went under, Iriya has taken a hit in the economic downward spiral, the shaking of the postwar dream of ever more growth and velocity. But customers at Caravan seem hardly to care. In the slow bubble of water boiled individually for each demitasse, in the sound of beans ground fresh for every cup, the passage of time seems irrelevant. The grandmother and grandfather who run the shop keep it open for limited hours only four days a week. The aging wood of the walls exudes the atmosphere of coffee.

Sometimes, as I rush by toward the station, past the cheap smoke-filled beast of Doutour, the chain store that speckles the landscape of Tokyo, I wonder how long Caravan will last. Other times, with attendant guilt, I jump in and out of Doutour myself to grab the 60-second mechanized “cappuccino.” Velocity and rushing, the feeling of being pressed for time, pulses through and around the city today everywhere, in the flow of traffic and the subterranean passages, but it is also everywhere interrupted and held in check. There is no flux without reflux, as Walter Benjamin has written—and that reflux, those moments of ebbing or backward flow, can bring with them astonishment.

When Hirato Renkichi distributed the First Manifesto of Japanese Futurism, he did not imagine that it would be read in the 21st century. He did not believe in preserving the past: “Try sniffing the abominable stench behind piles of books,” he wrote. “How many times superior is the fresh scent of gasoline!” Legend has it that he stood on a corner in Hibiya Park one winter day in 1921, just outside the Imperial Palace, handing out this self-published leaflet to crowds that he took to be the newly constituted “masses.” In fact, his leaflet itself played a part in making of that unending flow of human bodies the collective “we” that was mirrored proleptically in his prose. He celebrated the power of the teeming numbers that partake of the urban technological sublime: the world of “speed and light and heat and power.”

At the time when Hirato Renkichi wrote this First Manifesto, the concepts of Futurism had already been introduced in Japan, mostly through the visual arts and art criticism. Mori Ogai had translated Marinetti’s manifesto three months after its appearance in the French Le Figaro, for the May 1909 issue of Subaru journal. The year before Hirato distributed his Manifesto, Russian Futurist David Burljuk had caused a sensation in Tokyo with an exhibition of Russian contemporary and Futurist paintings. Hirato’s Manifesto was among the first Japanese works to respond directly. The work appeared in two parts, a section that took a form parallel to Marinetti’s own manifesto, and a prose poem called “Wish Toys” that followed.

Hirato reveled in the hard words and misogyny of Marinetti, and praised him for his disruptions of syntax and his love of the cinematograph: Hirato Renkichi’s “truth” was a lightning dance of instantaneous changes. With its continuously gyrating text, Hirato’s manifesto seems a desperate effort to lift off from the weight of his own sickly, decaying body. Hirato’s writing is composed of bright, momentary flashes mixed with shadows—the underside of the city, its decay, degeneration, and contagions flow under the surface of velocity he evokes in his text. In particular, the prose-poem “Wish-Toys” appended to the manifesto is weighed down by images of illness. Was Hirato himself, who would die the next year, circulating contagion as he passed his manifesto along with his breath through the air of the city?

Futures always have their hauntings—the frailties of both machine and flesh. They have their vanishings, like the pause in time (does it still exist?) and reflux provoked by the very air of the Iriya Caravan. Along with his hopes for the transcendent collective and the brilliant dynamo-electric light of forward progress, Hirato gives us a glimpse of those pauses, those moments of disappearance, that flicker of chaos and erosion. There is more than a whiff of Marinetti’s fascism in the Japanese Futurist Manifesto, but this odor mixes with a more organic scent of desiring-machines and the decomposing possibilities of the sublime.

See Hirato Renkichi’s Manifesto of the Japanese Futurist Movement and Miryam Sas’s English translation here.

Miryam Sas is associate professor of comparative literature and film studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book, Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism, was released by Stanford University Press in 2001. She is currently working on a new book about postwar Japanese performance.

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