Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Dieselpunk doesn't really exist as a genre in Japan. There are some anime that suit the genre aesthetics (I'll write about them some other time) but the historical period itself is a fascinating and singular one in the nation's history.

The Taisho period lasted from 1912 to 1926 and was a time of liberalism and social experimentation, as the nation came to grips with increasing westernization and a natural disaster (The Great Kanto of Earthquake of 1923) that destroyed the capital city. The Showa Period began in 1926, with progressive and liberal thinking in the arts and politics being gradually overshadowed by an increasing militarism.

Recently, I came across a book that's a fascinating document of the time. It's "The Scarlet Gang Of Asakusa", written by Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and author of the world-famous novel "Snow Country". "The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa" was written in 1930 and is basically a chronicle of the downtown Bohemian area of Tokyo known as Asakusa, where artists and novelists hung out in the kissaten coffee shops listening to the latest jazz albums, mixing with burlesque dancers, hookers, pimps, thieves and con artists. It's also written in a style that has been called 'Modernist', which means that it shares elements of the stream of consciousness technique pioneered by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.

Joyce was first introduced into Japan in 1918, and the noted author Ryunosuke Akatagawa translated and published a section from "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in 1922. From 1925, the use of the interior monologue and the works of other Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot started to gain ground in Japan, so it's possible that these were influences on Kawabata when he was writing the book.

Here's an excerpt:

"--I guess you'll need the red ones tonight. And I glance at the votive sticker in Haruko's hand. We're on the sidewalk on the lonely side of the street.

--Oh shoot. That reminds me. I've only got red ones left. I use the green ones way too much, so you can see how much I like to chase the boys.

The votives are the Scarlet Gang's innocent prank, a downtown kind of a joke. But sometimes, they double as your name cards, ID cards, or warning signals.

On the thick paper like that used for doors, yet so small you can tuck them in the palm of your hand, with the three words - Asakusa Scarlet Troupe - printed in Kantei style (bold, round white letters), there are both red ones and green ones. The whole system works like streetcar signals.

For example, say Haruko picks up a man and takes him to the shop where they sell Meiji brand candy in front of Kaminari Gate. She drops a green sticker at the store entrance. One of her buddies passing by notices the sticker and shakes the guy down for money."      

 The novel - although 'novel' doesn't feel like the right word - is illustrated by the contemporary artist Ota Saburo. Which gives us, yes, airships and kimonos! 





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Comment by John Paul Catton on July 5, 2012 at 12:27am

That would have been during the Bubble! The place looks a bit different now. They put up the tallest free-standing tower in Asia just behind Asakusa to try to liven up the place. It'll get the tourists but I don't know if the old downtown area will benefit that much. 

Comment by Docneg on July 4, 2012 at 12:21pm

I only visited Asakusa on jaunts to Tokyo but was primarily in Nagano, making trips there between 1989 and 1999 to visit family, etc.

Comment by John Paul Catton on July 2, 2012 at 11:15am

Thanks for your comment Docneg! I see what you mean about the "mystery" aspect of the Rampo movie. I've read a few of Rampo's books and I've found a Wikipedia entry for this movie. Sounds like they cobbled together some ero-grotesque elements from his fiction and threw them into his biography. I'll see if I can find a copy.

BTW when were you in Asakusa?   

Comment by Docneg on July 1, 2012 at 7:38pm

Thank you for that!  I'm going to have to get a copy.  Having spent some time in Asakusa, and loving airships as well, I was really delighted with the illustration.  The Taisho period is fascinating for all the reasons you explained, and if you can find a copy of the movie "The Mystery of Rampo" by all means watch it.  I don't know if there has ever been a subtitled version out, but it is well worth a viewing even if you can't understand a word.  It's set in that period and is a semi-biographical story about Edogawa Rampo, a famous mystery writer.  Very rich in period bohemian details.  And a mystery within a mystery:  There are two versions of the film, made by different directors with the same actors!  Halfway through production, the two principals ended their partnership, resulting in two versions that are fascinating to compare.

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