Agency for Cultural Affairs, Goverment of Japan

The nature of the sea reinterpreted through technology and art—Discover +A+ CULTURE GATE to JAPAN, a cultural promotion project by the Agency for Cultural Affairs

Artists engaged in the field of Media Arts have created works of art on the theme of Japanese culture, and are sharing them with the world through the CULTURE GATE to JAPAN project. The +A+ (Plus A Plus) exhibit introduced here is a part of that project.

Under curation by TAKEKAWA Junichi (davidwattsinc.), creative director of MUTEK.JP, three groups of artists have produced artwork based on the relationship between Japanese culture and the sea. On March 22, 2022, the exhibit opened on a large screen at Tokyo International Cruise Terminal, (a facility which opened in September of 2020). Currently, all of the works of art have been made available for viewing on YouTube. In this article, we search for the currents swirling behind +A+ from remarks shared by the three groups of artists.

“sealed aspect” by OISHI Hiroaki + NAGASHIMA Minori

In the late Edo period, Ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock print) artists used the bird’s-eye-view drawing technique to depict well-known places in Edo from an aerial perspective. Using this as a hint, “sealed aspect” by OISHI Hiroaki and NAGASHIMA Minori envisions a world that unfolds across the seabed of Tokyo Bay. Mr. OISHI, who specializes in digital art, spoke of the reasons for being inspired by the bird’s-eye-view technique.

“In an era when airplanes and cameras didn’t exist, the perspective drawn from the air was an imagined world. Even today, drawing something that you can’t see requires imaginative skills and I think that remains unchanged. The ships that arrive at Tokyo International Cruise Terminal can only see the surface of the sea as they sail and from that perspective are unaware of what kind of world stretches out below. The idea originated when I wondered if I could create artwork that emulates underwater cruising.” (OISHI)

The starting point for the art piece was the digital data of submarine topography made public by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan and Japan Oceanographic Data Center. The computer graphics software Houdini was used to read the elevation (water depth) data and generate topographic data, and Adobe After Effects was used for compositing. The camera angle pushes forward from Sagami Bay to the Sagami Trough and on to the Izu-Ogasawara Trench, then finally switches to a bird’s-eye view overlooking the waters near Tokyo.

“First of all, I realized Tokyo Bay is shallower than I’d thought. I believe it’s 70 meters at its deepest, so it’s pretty shallow. But, as you follow along the Sagami Trough and move to the Izu-Ogasawara Trench, the deep sea broadens out at a depth of 9,500 meters. It’s about 2.6 times deeper than the height of Mt. Fuji. I was surprised that such an expansive space extends further across the seabed than I’d imagined.” (OISHI)

NAGASHIMA Minori created the music. As a composer and arranger, she has been involved in stage, fashion shows, and music for video productions, as well as having participated in groups such as QUEEN BEE and Polkadot Stingray as a keyboardist.

“At first, I’d thought about creating the video and music through a generative process. It’s a way of creating that expresses data on the seabed in numerical form, and the music and video change based on those numerals. However, since the exhibit site is a monitor at the Cruise Terminal passenger arrival and departure station, and the length of the piece was set at three minutes, I decided to create something that has a complete introduction, development, climax, and conclusion. I composed the music thinking of the seabed and my own ideas for the story and introduction, development, climax, and conclusion.” (NAGASHIMA)

Rather than recreate the world at the bottom of the sea, she opened up the possibility of new creations through the addition of new images.

“Mr. OISHI made the video based on data, so I was afraid that if I didn’t do a good job the artwork would be nothing more than a video recording conveying topography. While digesting the data as a piece of art combining music and video, I started to think that it would be good to include our own subjectivity and images of the sea.” (NAGASHIMA)

Japanese nuances are occasionally scattered in the music, including the processed sounds of drums and drumsticks. In addition, the undersea world explored from the camera’s perspective is overlaid with physical images. Micro and macro images intersect on the stage that is Tokyo Bay to produce new images.

What do Mr. OISHI and Ms. NAGASHIMA want to communicate to people living in this world a hundred years from now through this artwork, “sealed aspect”?

“Even the undersea world isn’t static. It’s always in flux. A hundred years from now changes may be difficult to see, but ten thousand or a hundred million years from now I think the seabed in this artwork will have changed quite a lot. Maybe there’s something interesting in that comparison.” (OISHI)

“We used modern software to interpret digital data on submarine topography and create artwork of our own design, but I think a future is coming where in a hundred years people will say, ‘They used these tools and this is all they could express?’” In that sense, I think this artwork is a waypoint and am glad to have been given the opportunity to create such a piece.” (NAGASHIMA)

Bird’s-eye view of Japan × OISHI Hiroaki + NAGASHIMA Minori “sealed aspect”

“Hope” by EHARA Saeko

EHARA Saeko has created her work in the field of digital art under the theme, “the unspoiled landscape in my memory”, and for this project has produced the artwork, “Hope” based on the legend of Enoshima, a scenic spot that exemplifies the Shonan area.

According to the legend passed down in Shonan, a five-headed dragon that once lived in Kamakura near Enoshima committed many wicked deeds. A heavenly maiden came down, admonished the five-headed dragon, and brought an end to the wicked acts. The island that appeared together with the heavenly maiden’s descent from above is Enoshima. The artwork by Ms. EHARA is based on this Enoshima origin story.

“I intuitively felt that a motif based on folklore would be fitting for artwork combining video art and history handed down in the region. After doing some research, I decided to make the theme the story of Enoshima’s five-headed dragon and the goddess, Benzaiten. Enoshima is also a familiar place for me that I’ve visited since I was a child.”

Folklore and legends are not only history passed on into the future, but also sometimes play the role of communicating wisdom and lessons to later generations, and it seems the artist sensed a reality that reflects these elements and is meaningful because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since COVID-19 began spreading, I think we’ve lost many things in our day-to-day lives but also made new discoveries. I think the circumstances of humans being unable to have control has overlapping elements with the era depicted in the legend of Enoshima. I created the artwork thinking that ideas cultivated by our ancestors and the ability to look ahead can probably be understood even today.”

In addition, the picture scroll, “Enoshima Engi (the story of Enoshima’s origins)” at Enoshima-jinja Shrine became the basis for the artwork, and illustrations drawn on the scroll appear in the art piece.

“For this piece, I gained special permission to borrow the digital data of Enoshima-jinja Shrine’s “Enoshima Engi” and was careful not to alter the original illustration. I wanted to faithfully convey the colors of the actual illustrations in the video. I think borrowing it was significant and gaining consent was meaningful, so I was mindful of how I could accurately convey the story through video.”

The artwork unfolds dramatically from the first half as it plunges into chaos, through the middle where “Enoshima Engi” is inserted, and then to the last half that is brimming with light Ms. EHARA explained about the production process of this artwork.

“I created the very first scene where the dragon appears using Houdini software and incorporated an effect called “nodes” to produce a single scene. What I produced from that point was processed using Adobe After Effects, and at the end used Premiere Pro to add music and edit.“

YASUKOCHI Shuta created the music. He is an ambient music producer who has released music on overseas labels. His music enhances the story in combination with the video of intersecting images of water, fire, and dazzling light.

What was Ms. EHARA’s perception of the exhibit site, which is the arrival and departure station at Tokyo International Cruise Terminal?

“Setting off into an unknown world is very exciting, but there is also a feeling of anxiousness. Whether it is the video or music, the artwork is approached with the senses, so I hope people will be put at ease before their departure. I’ll be happy if it gives travelers some encouragement.”

Being able to create the artwork based on the digital data of “Enoshima Engi” became a valued experience for the artist. She spoke of the significance of handling cultural property as a motif for digital art.

“I’d be happy if in the future I could have another chance to collaborate on projects incorporating valuable cultural properties as I did in this exhibit. Fundamentally, video doesn’t deteriorate, so the original work won’t be harmed, and I think it can be viewed by many people as long as there is the internet. I think leaving behind video artwork like this of an enduring story means the story itself will be passed on to later generations.”

Enoshima is a nationally known tourist spot, but the island’s origins are not well known. Perhaps this artwork will introduce some people for the first time to what lies within Enoshima’s layers of history.

Enoshima Engi (the story of Enoshima’s origins) × EHARA Saeko “Hope”

“The Sigh of Eels” by TAKIDO Dorita

TAKIDO Dorita is a director and designer with a multifaceted career that includes fine arts, design, games and video. For the theme of her artwork, she chose the Edo eel, which has been a part of Japan’s diet since the Edo period. The striking title, “The Sigh of Eels” (Japanese title: “Fuyu no Kougei” (Winter Rainbow)) is inspired by “Haru no Kougei” (Spring Rainbow) by UTAGAWA Kuniyoshi, an Ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock print) artist from the late Edo period, who depicted a beautiful woman holding a skewered eel. Over 180 years have passed since he drew that picture and the circumstances surrounding the Edo eel have drastically changed, as its very existence is under threat. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated the Japanese eel that live in East Asia as “an endangered species at high risk of extinction.”

“I created this artwork hoping it would provide an opportunity for people to confront and think about this situation. As I researched the topic, I came to understand that the number one cause of extinction is the overfishing of eel. Other causes include the environment of rivers and the problem of water pollution, as well as the poaching and illicit trade of glass eels. However, these problems could be resolved with the development of legislation. There are also researchers who believe a resolution is possible through biotechnology. With these things in my mind, I decided to create a robotic eel for this artwork.”

Ms. TAKIDO first tackled designing, planning, and developing a robotic leptocephalus, which is an eel’s larva.

“I started from scratch using a 3D printer. I’d never made an underwater robot, so it took me a lot of time to consider the issues of water pressure and waterproofing. Plus, it was quite difficult to figure out how to move the fins to propel it forward.”

Inside the robotic leptocephalus she created there are eel otoliths. Otoliths, or ‘ear stones,’ are used to identify fish. A lot is still unknown about the ecology of eels, but it is said that otoliths are important for understanding the eel ecology and reproductive state.

“Apparently, you can understand if eel has been overfished or not by looking at the otoliths. I also inserted otoliths into the robot to show that this method of identification exists as a utilization of biotechnology.”

“The Sigh of Eels” begins with a scene showing an underwater model and the robotic leptocephalus dancing in the sea. In the end, the camera emerges from the water revealing Tokyo Bay. The ending features a cut of the Onagi River where large numbers of Edo eels were once caught.

While exploring a path to improvement through biotechnology, the video raises awareness about the current state of the eel that is exposed to the danger of extinction. The aim of this work by Ms. TAKIDO is clear. She has been utilizing technology to create artwork using plants and insects as a motif, reflecting her mindfulness of life.

“The biggest factor is the arrogance of humankind. Plants and insects existed before humans, and even thrive more than humans. I feel we are dismissive of that. I think they know what should be learned and ways to survive even better than we do. I want to create a gateway to that realization.”

In addition to professional underwater camera operators and robot design engineers participating in the making of this artwork, the artist also enlisted the cooperation of A Zero, Inc. in Okayama that farms eels. Everyone involved shares the same desire to stop the extinction of eels.

“It’d be great if a hundred years from now both eels and people will have survived. There is also the issue of the food crisis, and it’s my hope that a century from now people will think that humans in the year 2022 did their best.”

That is the sentiment expressed by Ms. TAKIDO. If eels living in Tokyo Bay in Kuniyoshi’s time welcomed spring, then this day and age when they are on the verge of extinction can truly be called wintertime. Will spring come someday? “The Sigh of Eels ” is artwork that makes us realize that we who live today are unquestionably at a fork in the road.

Edo eel × TAKIDO Dorita “The Sigh of Eels”

When we think of the place ‘Tokyo,’ we naturally think of it as an urban space lined with tall buildings and crowded with people.

However, spread out below it are the deep waters of Tokyo Bay, which is also called the Tokyo Submarine Canyon, home to deep-sea fish that look just like monsters. Look up at the sky and we see an expansive realm where birds fly about. Look to the west and we see a forest realm in Okutama, and to the south a continuous string of islands that stretches from Izu to the Ogasawara.

In this project, the artists rethink the nature of the sea within the endlessness of “Tokyo”, and reinterpret the natural features and culture associated with the sea through the use of technology and art. By experiencing the artwork of these three groups in the +A+ exhibit, we can greatly enhance and change our image of Tokyo. +A+ is a project that gives us much to discover.

Text by OISHI Hajime, QETIC