The Devil in the Details

“Soft” is a word I’ve heard Emiko use often to describe anything from textiles, to gestures, to landscape. After 5 months of pushing the screens of the exercise machines at the gym to my endless frustration – I now realize that,  gently and specifically  is how they must be touched. Indeed, almost a fingernail flick to a very tiny sweet spot, does the trick. With things, I am used to prodding, poking, pulling and pushing – hard and harder when something doesn’t respond. That does not work here.

Yet, there is an underlying violence – that potential thrust of volcano, of earth, of tsunami, is this the Japanese people? Always on guard, soft on the outside, hard inside? Very much a generalization, and who are we?  as Canadians, as Quebecers?  How much does climate and geography form who we are as a people?

One of my biggest fears about coming to Japan was that I would feel overwhelmed in the crush of people. That was a wasted worry! There is such fluidity and civility in movement and attention to flow, whether on foot or in a car, all public spaces are designed and textured for the movement of people, including the blind. Not even taxi drivers show half the overdrive of Montrealers at the wheel. No one is driving fast, except the loud ones in Roppongi with too much money invested in their cars – they have to show them off somehow. I hear them late at night revving their engines and tearing up Roppongi Dori.

Perhaps the violence is corralled into a competitive drive, the push to outdo a rival company, or in striving towards an idea of perfection. Detail is everything  and it is beautifully crafted.

I am always in search of the perfect pen. I do a lot of writing and drawing in a notebook that I carry with me. I prefer something slim, very lightweight and with a felt tip, so if necessary, I can make quick washes in my drawings. I adopted the lovely Pilot Hi-Tec C 0.4 felt-tipped pen just before leaving for Japan. I was happy to discover that the Japanese seem to be about as crazy as I am about pens and that Pilot is made in Japan. There are rows and rows of different kinds of pens in all the art and stationary stores. And, of course, I’ve discovered more pens that I like almost as much, and even a new erasable ball-point pen – the Frixion! Little did I know that there was so much competition out there for a pen!

the beautiful Couleur Pilot ball-point pen.

the beautiful Couleur Pilot ball-point pen.

While at a party one evening early-on in my stay here, I was part of a half-english, half-gesture and mostly Japanese conversation, so maybe I understood things all wrong, but a man said he worked for Pilot pens.  I immediately pulled out my two latest loves, the one already mentioned and the newer, ultra-slim Couleur ball-point pen. He took the ball-point and started to click, click, click, click the in-out mechanism just beside his ear, non-stop. I am the sound checker for this pen, he said….very important that it have the right sound! We all laughed. I never could have imagined a sound was so important.

From March to early May, I studied Japanese at MLC Meguro and after one of my classes, the director asked me if I would mind being interviewed by some business men from Mitsubishi. It would only take a few minutes, she assured me. Always curious, of course I volunteered. I was ushered into a small classroom upstairs and invited to sit at a table across from a very welcoming young man. Two other men stood in the doorway, looking in. The young man pulled out a sheet of paper. He explained that it was a questionnaire – they were doing a survey to test a new pen that Mitsubishi was developing. It’s principle is based on a brush, the harder you push down, the wider and bolder the stroke. He handed it to me to try and proceeded to get me to rate my opinions. Rating impressions in numbers always frustrates me. For my tastes I explained it was too big, too fat between my fingers and made a mark far too dark. Look, I said wanting to show them exactly what I meant, I pulled out my notebook…and said, I am an artist.  The interest in the room jumped instantly by 300% and all heads leaned towards me as I opened my book. I made several marks in my book and pointed out how the line was too dark and that even though this was a fairly heavy paper, I could see it on the other side of the page – not good. Ah! yes they understood. Disappointed. Back to the drawing board, maybe. They gave me a 500 yen card to buy stuff at a convenience store , for my trouble.

Afterwards I thought, I should have told them that they had a brilliant idea. It would be fantastic for artists. It just needs to be able to deliver its goods more gently!!!