A couple of days after falling and damaging my knee the other week, there came an out-of-the-blue message from a friend of a friend based in London asking whether we would like tickets to Jean Paul Gaultier’s self-penned musical stage stage extravaganza, Fashion Freak Show, up in Tokyo.
What to do?
I had been ordered to rest and not put any weight on my leg and was in the mood to just veg out at home and recover
Going to the packed out choc a bloc heart of ‘young Tokyo’, Shibuya, a place neither of us particular enjoy any more with its tangle of manic and overenergized treeless bustle, felt kind of daunting for a suddenly immobilized codger on (an admittedly stylish and JPGesque carved wooden twizzle of a) walking stick.
We hate musicals. (Yes, you read that correctly. D even more so than me: I would rather just sit and home and stare at the wall than watch the deeply alienating spectacle of mortifying jazz hands and pearl-toothed crescendos (I realize this supposedly automatically disqualifies us from being card carrying homos : people have regarded us in sheer horror in the past when this has come up (you don’t like musicals? what the hell is wrong with you?!!!) My loathing of shopping is also grounds for eviction from gaysville: heaven is supposed to be spending the day clothes shopping on Oxford Street or Knightsbridge, a quick tipple at Harvey Nics and then catching a show on the West End, the kind of day that would have me drained yet overstuffed as a clapped out vacuum cleaner). I can do cinematic screen versions of West Side Story and The Sound Of Music, Grease and a couple of others, but no – by and large, musicals, everything about them just makes me cringe.)
My sister, a die hard musical theatre lover, raised by Andrew Lloyd Webber-fans and devotees of Les Misérables (my parents love the musicals) had already been to see this Gaultier show twice, and with its 80’s and 90’s music and cultural references had assured me that, as it was not a musical but a hybrid of dance and circus and runway vogueing – there was a very high possibility I would love it
I had been lying around feeling sorry for myself all week in a bit of a pity party and secretly, despite my laziness and bruised pain, loved the idea of just going out and seeing something new (natural curiosity and hedonism do usually win out)
I have never been to a fashion show and have always wanted to
I kind of love Jean Paul Gaultier.
(we went …)
Quite distinct from most other designers in his personality and comic lack of pretense, JPG’s hilarious Eurotrash tv series, which he presented with Antoine De Caulnes in the strongest French accent intelligible to humanity, was quite often on in the background at our house late Friday nights during the 1990’s; he brought a unique irreverence and silliness to everything he approached, while still retaining a steadfast coolness (his fashion maison and reputation were exploding simultaneously, yet the vast majority of couturiers in this situation would be too self-serious and removed from the rest of us to deign to ever self deprecate or just make fun of everything and bring levity with his reportage on the shallower delights). Yet JPG just seemed to revel in it; I remember buying the 12″ single of his 1989 house anthem ‘How To Do That‘ when it came out
-the b-side of which was simply an engraving of his famous scissor-log etched into the vinyl; I think it is lingering somewhere in a cardboard box in my parents’ garage
and, like anybody else, it will go without saying, was completely ravaged by the costumes he designed for Madonna’s more than iconic world tour of 1990, Blond Ambition (now here I can definitely get my G membership card back).
Although the Gaultier/Madonna cone bra association can sometimes feel like lazy journalism – the couturier, who retired in 2020 after decades in the business dressing all kinds of people including other pop singers as well as film stars and a whole plethora of the rich and famous – when working for a stint at Pierre Cardin in Manila in his earlier days he also attended to the needs of one shoe-loving Imelda Marcos), there is no doubt that in the mind of the public, the enduring and automatic link you make when you think of Gaultier is between M – about to embark on a Greatest Hits world tour where she will undoubtedly unearth some remixed version of this famous look – and the lingerie-as-armour she came out on stage to for her Fritz Lang and Lolita Lempicka inspired staging of Express Yourself; a performance which at the time felt very groundbreaking and daring and ridiculously cool (needless to say, the harnesses and bras and all the expected JPG paraphernalia were also quite prominent in the show).
When the eponymous debut perfume, Jean Paul Gaultier, later renamed Classique – a sweet, madamish, and muskily authoritative orange blossom vanilla created by Jacques Cavallier (originator of such heavy breathers as Alexander Mcqueen Kingdom, Lancôme Poême, Givenchy Hot Couture, Rochas Alchimie and Cinéma by Yves Saint Laurent) was released in 1993, the ‘enfant terrible’ – another overused Gaultierism – predictably ’caused a stir’ with the stark and rude female corset that had been blatantly pillaged from Schiaparelli’s Shocking flacon and was considered ‘provocative’ stored in its metallic wooden tin. I rather liked it: an Austrian woman I was teaching at the time would wear it to great effect, but a part of me, I will admit – already had a slightly tired sense of overkill. Madonna had moved on (she was now appearing nude in the Sex book rather than wearing any clothes), and the corset felt like yesterday’s news; even the perfume itself felt strangely familiar (probably because it was modelled on the powdery perfumes that his own grandmother would have undoubtedly worn back in the day). Yet in many ways this very simplicity of concept – a neo-vintage vibe and an immaculate flacon – was the genius of this scent. The design of the bottle has certainly withstood the test of time; the word is overused, but it is genuinely iconic; and with its many flankers, Classique as a perfume is still very popular among a certain demographic who have grown up with it – the flirtatious central accord in the perfume, sexy; convincing – a bit cheap and easy in a way, but still quite erotic, and it forms one of the central pillars of the JPG perfume universe along with the indestructible Le Mâle from 1995 (Francis Kurkdijian’s inimitable salty mint lavender vanilla musk that both D and I wore back in the day) ad well as the more recent, typically floral-honey gourmand Scandal.
(other Gaultier scents, including perhaps my favourite, , Fragile, from 1999, have long since been discontinued, although there has recently been a welcome resurrection of JP2)
Gaultier’s blockbuster men’s scent LE MALE, of course, is still going very strong, still a superseller in the European market, in various differing versions I am not familiar with (the Le Parfum edition is meant to be stunning, so do let me know if you are familiar with this one or any great Gaultier flankers that have dropped beneath the radar). With an even more ingeniously designed bottle that I wish I still had in my collection, one that really did push the envelope in what a man can accept on his dressing table, this blatantly homoerotic core of the world of JPG is based, on Jean Paul’s signature dress code, that of the marinière striped, blue and white sailor’s top, as synonymous with the blond flat-cropped cropped Frenchman as the dark glasses and ultrathin black tie of Karl Lagerfeld (gently mocked in the show, along with Anna Wintour, representing the Fashion Police in a ‘comedy’ section of the show I was slightly slithering down into my seat to: as a child I was always a bit uncomfortable and squirmy during overexaggerated pantomimes….)
The rest of the show we enjoyed. With fantastically positioned seats at the front of the Theater Orb at the top of the Hikarie department store just next to Shibuya station (thanks very much, indeed, Katy!) we got the full impact of the excellent set design – all graphic neon evocations of Paris and Soho, pulsating strobes of clubland and visually striking setpieces as the beautiful troupe of dancers, models and trapezistes who formed the cast took us through the life of Jean Paul, from a little boy, surgically attaching the notorious cone bras to his teddy bear under the watchful (but approving) eye of his fashionable grandmother, Marie Garrabe (the show begins with a film of an operation taking place, before morphing into an extravaganza of giant teddy bears dancing to, naturally. Chic’s Le Freak ( Nile Rogers curated the music for the show)
We watch the young idealistic and irrepressible stripe-shirted protagonist go through his life in Paris and London, falling in love, suffering tragedy when the love of his life dies of AIDS (a movingly rendered moment with a solitary dancer performing in the dark to a poignant version of Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin before being lifted up into the unknown); then intrepidly beginning his own fashion business in the eighties post punk era, at first reviled by the establishment, but then finally celebrated as an untrained, but undeniably extremely talented, visionary and stylist. A series of fashion shows featuring a range of his designs prove the point; songs from the eras by the likes of Blondie, The Sex Pistols, Curtis Mayfield, Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf via Grace Jones with La Vie En Rose and of course, Madonna, as the models parade and strut their stuff on the rapidly shifting stage contraptions.
Just to nitpick: sometimes, I will admit, I was wishing for a more coutureish wow factor – in my mind, Gaultier always had an opulence to his clothes that comes through in the 2022 collection, for example, by interim designer Glenn Martens (the house will continue under seasonal leadership by different creatives)
However, it was Gaultier himself who selected the 200 or more costumes from his oeuvre for this show so one must go along with his vision. And since sensuality and a ‘cheeky infectiousness’ are JPG trademarks, it was fitting that there was just as much bare flesh on display as fashionorama. The whole was kinetic, uplifting, frenetic yet very well choreographed; a celebration of creative freedom and beauty that the audience was whooping with delight to and lapping up throughout; you left the building with an uplifted glow.
It was also fascinating, when meeting with some of the producers at the theatre bar afterwards for some drinks, to hear about how genuinely nice and funny Jean Paul Gaultier is in real life. Flying out to Tokyo to do endless rounds of interviews with the Japanese press, he apparently hadn’t complained at all, was smiling the whole time, always gracious and encouraging (if super exacting) at the costume fittings and dress rehearsals – no one had anything but good things to say about him. I loved hearing about the concert stagff being in close proximity to some of my idols – Grace Jones walking into the office and being much tinier than expected; Boy George – another protege in the nineties – as hilariously bitchy as you would have expected him to be; hearing anecdotes about how much Gaultier has truly enjoyed putting on this show about his life – which he has apparently always wanted to do since he first got inspiration seeing the Folies Bergères on the television as as a child. It was a real toe dip into the JPG universe. When the show ends its run next week or so, it will touch down in Bavaria for a while and then continue elsewhere, constantly evolving and streamlining (the two hours went very fast – I would have liked it to go on a bit longer) – entertaining the many thousands of people who have been drawn to the designer’s innate style and ethos of inclusivity which was actually mirrored in the audience (what can potentially sound like PR in this regard can be borne out by his unconventional use, over his fashion career, of models of all shapes, ages, skin colours and sizes – he was one of the first to do this, bored of conventional ‘good taste’: something I can applaud with great gusto). I like Jean Paul Gaultier’s energy. His sense of humour. I like his clothes, his perfumes, and, even if injured – the theatre staff were extraordinarily efficient in whisking me and d up in special limited access elevators and secret passage ways – it was a very fun, therapeutic and enjoyable way to spend a Sunday evening.
Joy is perhaps the most precarious of all perfumes. With the right pristine batch, on the person it was born for, this rich living floral can be almost staggeringly exquisite; truly live up to its name. On the wrong skin – the overwhelming majority I would say, it could just as appropriately be renamed Despair.
The vintage soap I snapped up for something like five dollars recently is beautifully packaged, embodying luxury. The JP embossment on the box. The lovely case – which could work fine for carrying travel soaps or for putting in paper clips. The thoughtfully placed inner towel that modestly adorns the partially used up savon.
But the smell of the soap itself is definitely a bit of a shocker. Cellophaned within itself for fifty years lamenting its waste, the indolic natural jasmine and sour dark macerated roses roiled in sweaty sandalwood aligned with the glandular, micturating eros of musk and civet have done their own thing over the decades, culminating in a savage animal quadruple milled jasmine murk that you are embarrassed to have gliding and frothing over your body. And the stench of it lingers ; in the bathroom, in the house : grubby vestiges of roses and uresis with intimations of both Number One and Number Two, filmy and cantankerous. Thus, the soap thumbs its nose and mocks you with the ultimate irony; you come out of the shower far, far filthier than when you went in.
I am obsessed with this perfume. Discovering it only recently, there is something in the florid jasmine aldehydic rush of the opening moments followed rapidly by the full bodied greenness and warm softness thereafter that I find intensely emotional.
What is the cause of this powerful sensation in me, one that gives me an almost out-of-body, Proustian feeling of ecstacy ? I think it is that gorgeous overdose of jasmine in the top ; a very beautiful natural essence of jasmine pressed deep into a snowdrift of pure aldehydes, and an out-of-reach Javanese vetiver lingering somewhere underneath like someone who has tragically drowned under ice. You can never quite reach it, but you know it is there; floating forever below…
While compared by many perfume people – quite understandably, with its rose, iris, green bergamot, and oakmoss/sandalwood in the base – to vintage Chanel Nº19, to me, in truth, this has far more in common with the glorious emotionality of Van Cleef & Arpel’s First from 1976 (has any perfume ever been more lushly orchestral, more full of human vivacity and life?). The perfume I most associate with my mother – who still sometimes gives First a go when it feels right for her – Rogue’s Vetifleur isn’t exactly a homage to that perfume, but the heartrending jasmine that soars up to the skies when you spray it on prompts a similar reaction in me to that from Jean Claude Ellena’s dizzying classic. The grime and noise of the world is banished in an instant: all is beautifully distanced and contained. In texture, on my skin, Vetifleur is something like a combination of the understated Paco Rabanne Calandre with its muted roses and seamless green aldehydic eiderdowns, one of my ultimate daytime comfort perfumes – and the fuller bodied, white modern soapiness of Pure Distance’s Opardu.
(Note: for those who dislike even a hint of aldehyde – and there are many who feel this way, especially in league with an indolic jasmine – you may well find aspects of this perfume potentially ‘soiled or baby diaperish’ at certain stages; there is a danger that this (in some ways deliberately, even provocatively anachronistic) perfume might thus turn sour on you or become unwantedly ‘geriatric’: perfumer Manuel Cross, whose work I greatly admire both for its modern and innovative take on classical perfumery structures and his readiness to ignore an overly restrictive IFRA environment (I love his rebelliousness) is purposefully here dousing the perfume in proper aldehydes that don’t go with modern trends, even if in essence, in my view, this is a quite contemporary interpretation of the classic aldehydic due to the fact that the end notes don’t taper off into the expected erotic animalia of deer musk and civet, those notes that back in the day always seemed to signal that the elegance of the evening in public was done, that now was the more pliant moment for the intimate retour à la chambre…Nevertheless, not a few reviewers on Fragrantica- deterred by the ‘dirtiness’ of the jasmine and its connotations – find this very modern/old school aspect a no-no, so do try a sample first).
In my own case, I feel completely differently. For me, the perfume is perfectly imperfect, and very beautiful. Wearing Vetifleur, I am at once a child, in rapture at my mother’s perfume floating in the air around me before she goes out for the night, drinking all the contrapuntal swirling elements into my young brain cells: a synaptic lighting up in my mind and body from the rich cornucopia of flowers and mosses and woods that all sparkle together, yet are simultaneously so very smooth; but also a more experienced, adult man, not world weary, but far more sharply aware of the realities, happiness and sadnesses of life, its joys and its fragilities, upon whom this aesthetically pleasing, romantic and moving fragrance confers an immediate feeling of euphoric grace.
If someone were to ask me if I had any unfulfilled dreams, they might include: going to Brazil, India, and pre-war Russia; being allowed to roam and rifle through the Guerlain archives at my leisure as well as an afternoon at the Versailles Osmothèque; visiting the ylang ylang essential distillation centres at Nosy Bé, Madagascar; and coming across a giant, glass tear-studded vintage bottle of Caron Poivre parfum.
The thing that makes me yearn the most every year, though, is definitely the Cannes Film Festival. I would love, absolutely love, to get up early every day and sit through hours and hours and hours of premières by all the world’s cinematic leading auteurs until nighttime, lose my world in their films and come to my own critical conclusions on their merits before the nail-biting presentation of all the Palmes D’Or, the Grand Prix, the Jury Prizes; I don’t think there is anything I would find more exciting or enjoyable. To be at the centre of all that visual, intellectual, aural, aesthetic stimulation would thrill me. The Oscars, for me, don’t remotely hold the same level of interest except for all the pizzazz of the red carpet bling; the film selections are simply not in the same class. How amazing to see the latest Almodovar or Jonathan Glazer: to see these films first before all the media critiques blur your own imagination ; to have witnessed all the furore and futuristic glamour surrounding Titane.
Maybe – in an alternate universe – I would even bestride the red carpet (now for that I really would actually make sartorial effort: a silk tux by Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent and black rose corsage? An elegant ensemble finished with the most exquisite 1970’s Leonard tie?). At the very least, to just be present in all the clamour and pretentious hubbub of the proceedings; to watch the glamorous attendees swanning past; catch a glimpse of what scents they are wearing…
An excellent choice for this very situation, the Cannes Film Festival 2023 – unfolding right now as we speak in the south of France – would undoubtedly be the very uplifting, and ebullient, new Rosarine by Parfums Dusita.
By far Pissara Umavijani’s most exuberant and celebratory creation, this lavish, raspberry patchouli rose definitely creates the required statement and sillage needed to underscore the panache of all the gala screenings; an orchestrated, full, and complex contemporary rose fragrance that bursts with excitement and positivity.
Expecting a far more bashful, romantic, even tender rose perfume, the immediacy and briskness of the peppery lychee and mandarinish bergamot jasmine sambac that grace the Bulgarian rose and Rose De Mai at the centre of the perfume were something of a surprise – this one practically leaps from the bottle – all bolstered thickly with a rich heart and base (incense, amyris, cacao) that almost approaches the classic Angelic fruitchouli gourmand (in the press kit, the competing two main accords – a rich rose that reminds me of Shiseido Rose Royale, even Courrèges In Blue, and a dry, biscuity, almost savoury chocolate patchouli that is quite similar to Serge Lutens’ Borneo 1840) evolve to a very yang, polished and depression-killingly upfront perfume that has the power to dazzle. Like a sister to Sisley’s unforgettable rose chypre Soir De Lune, this has great staying power and will suck up surrounding attention.
While I myself in reality would probably rather wear the subtle and more ‘sensible’ Douceur De Siam, another, more gentle rose perfume in the Dusita pantheon that in comparison is a shy, retiring wallflower (with much more room to breathe), Rosarine, a fruity, woody, profusion of confidence, demonstrates the other side of the emotional scale. We can’t all wear a spicy, exultant modern rose. After all, I am not a film star – and this is a perfume for the budding diva.
An article I read in the New York Times the other day about the dire current situation in Sudan has made me think a lot about integrity, stamina and bravery. Doctors and nurses who refuse to leave highly dangerous war zones because they simply cannot leave wounded people unattended to; Ukrainians who have no choice but to stay and fight, often losing their lives in the process.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for the valiance and self-sacrifice that so many human beings often display in the service of others; organizations like Medecins Sans Frontières, The Red Cross and Red Crescent which are full of incredible people who value preserving life and protecting the vulnerable above all else. They are unsung heroes who can sometimes just make me feel like a shameful indolent decadent.
Though on a different scale, we all make sacrifices to greater or lesser extents; good parents give so much for their children; partners compromise; if the world were purely selfish, nothing would work. Everything is about give and take; empathy; a natural desire to help others; love.
Selflessness is one thing. Martyrdom, though, is something different. On the one hand, this extreme manifestation of belief and emotion made real – literally dying for what you believe in – whether it being a refusal to renounce your faith even on pain of death; suicide bombing, the samurai’s need for honour necessitating ritual suicide by slicing open his bowels and then being beheaded by a cohort – makes me marvel at the potency of thought and feeling that can lead a human being to so fully place their worth at the centre of one particular set of values and the inner fortitude needed to then physically carry out the act; on the other, a more logical part of me can almost sneer at the level of ‘brainwashing’ required in the first place to so easily just throw away one’s own, precious life (the recent, highly macabre death of 201 Kenyans at the hands of a taxi driver turned cult leader who lured his pitifully naive adherents into a barren forest where he urged them to starve themselves to death in order to meet Jesus is a casebook study of how the unthinking are led into oblivion : the probable USA president of 2024 is yet another).
“Give me your money, and stop eating!”
Above: the lovely Jung Myung Seok, self-proclaimed Messiah, and founder of Providence, who has possibly achieved his stated lifetime goal of raping 10,000 women (the ‘Brides Of Christ’ ) during his lifetime – have you seen the horrifying Netflix documentary “In The Name Of God: A Holy Betrayal” ? – it truly beggared belief)
Below: Andreas from Buddhafield, yet another mindboggling cult (it is always the same pattern) in which yet another mastermanipulator managed to make his young male acolytes dance ballets in speedos while, obviously, sexually assaulting them afterwards
How does this keep on happening?
I have to admit being slightly obsessed with this topic in general, seeing that I know several people here whose family members are even now in actual cults and being badly affected by them- relating very relevantly also to the shooting of Shinzo Abe last year, whose killer wanted vengeance for his alleged connections with the Unification Church, draining his mother’s finances and which essentially left him an orphan ; also, one of my best British friends – an extremely intelligent, creative, and penetrating individual, herself spent 18 years in an Indian religious before extricating herself and seeing the light (she described the realization – the true realization, of how unwise she had been to believe the bullshit to the extent that she did, as an utter humiliation, deep in the soul, and mortification beyond description; far lower than the worst depression, and she had to claw her way back slowly up towards life again…a very long process indeed, even though now she is living a successful artistic life and can look back at it all more objectively. Getting dragged into these situations, losing your autonomy of thought is so extremely dangerous, but it seems that human beings just can’t resist the self-serving magnetizer.
“Wear nothing but orange and red!
(yet another riveting cult documentary on Netflix: “Wild Wild Country”)
I wasn’t planning to write about cult leaders today.
I was actually planning to write about something completely different; the fact that I fell and damaged my knee on Monday night and have been off work all week – an accident that was completely my fault – but then realized that the two topics of conversation were in fact somehow connected (bear with me).
We were visiting a dancer friend and her boyfriend who were visiting from London and renting a posh traditional house on the hillside the other side of Kitakamakura station; a bit of an uphill walk for me to be honest (readers unfamiliar with my orthopedic travails can read about my stay in a Japanese hospital here), which may have stiffened my legs a bit; at any rate, no one said, after we had relaxed with drinks and snacks, that I had to go careening around the polished wooden floors slipperless at fast speed excitedly taking photos for potential friends who might want to come and stay in Japan nearby – it was a nice, atmospheric abode with shoji screens, an inner garden and a quite special ambience that I was trying to capture on my phone for future potential visitors not noticing the too high step in the genkan entrance that crashed down onto stone (the umeshu plum wine hadn’t helped either), sliding too quickly like a bad ice skater , and then before I knew it my left knee giving way – – I found myself flying in the air and crashing down on my left knee, crunching something interior in the process.
After a few stunned, then yelping moments, but realizing that the pain wasn’t excruciating (if you have ever broken a bone, you know how that feels; that particular throbbing of sharp dull pain that is immediately indicative of something fracturing or snapping), I willed myself to stand up and realized, with great relief, that I could walk on the joint. The next morning, however, I couldn’t, and my knee had really swollen up to the point where it was stuck and unbendable. I called work and told them I couldn’t come in – I didn’t even entertain the idea – lay on the bed all that day; the next, D came from work in a taxi in the early afternoon and then we went together to the hospital in Ofuna, although there were no doctors available (all in surgery); finally we went yesterday, where I had fluid removed and an x-ray, revealing that nothing serious had occurred; the swelling has gone down, although the Kill Bill-like sudden plunging of the syringes into the knee cap yesterday had me laughing out loud in shock at how violent it felt in the examination room – and I have to say that it is still rather painful today.
I contacted work, early in the morning, and they were very kind and understanding ; when I sent a picture of how swollen my left knee was and the diagnosis – meniscus tear and effusion, saying that I was told to rest it, not put weight on it, ice it etc – they were completely fine; take your time, don’t rush it, come back next week, they said – which is exactly what I have been doing. I need to let it heal so that I can get back on my feet (and on my bicycle).
The reason I am writing this rather mangled and disjointed piece, I suppose, is to talk about how very different it would be for my Japanese colleagues if they were in the same position. I know this from personal experience. Even though I woke up in pain on Tuesday morning, my leg locked like a crustacean and could do nothing but lie down, the other teachers, in the spirit of konjo, would have definitely strapped a painkilling bandage around the offending area and struggled with crutches off and on plain platforms and into the classrooms to do their duty no matter how dire the consequences to their health condition. Even though yesterday I had blinding pain searing through my body after the injections and water removal and could hardly think straight for a few moments as I hoped and prayed for a taxi to arrive outside the hospital, my co-teachers would have simply grinned and borne it and gone into work despite (because of?) the pain. One teacher recently fell through the gap between the train and the platform on the way to work, broke a couple of ribs, and must have been deeply shocked, but everyone smiled quietly when he valiantly, drugged up, having gone to the hospital, then dragged his way into the office, hauling himself up in front of his students to teach some maths equations. Bravo! Agonizing gout doesn’t stop people – in fact the extreme pain in the toes makes the disabling walk you have to do even more clear to others the effort you are making, despite your dolor; it is a badge of honour. I have seen a female colleague of mine once locked and stooped in terrible back pain, clearly in agony, but still ‘valiantly’ going into the classroom for a two hour lecture, sighing for our benefit; a man in his sixties with grimacable, palpable waves of shooting pain going through his teeth, coated in spiced, antiseptic liquid analgesics dripping onto his shirt collar going and teaching some useless and antiquated tedious textbook English grammar or other rather than just going home and getting better (ie seeing a dentist first). Only two weeks ago, one of my favourite people at work was suffering from a severe attack of vertigo (I had the same thing during the pandemic – probably the worst experience of my life, where I felt I was being hurtled through black space like a boomerang – it turned out many of the readers on The Black Narcissus had suffered from this at some point or other in their lives as well, but I am pretty sure that none of them would be moronic enough to go into the workplace in such a condition: my friend, bless him – but what an idiot – was grey in the face, almost keeling over, clutching onto surfaces to try and stand up straight, unable to see properly; really really suffering but still intent on teaching (why? what’s the point?) just because; naturally, no one around him was doing anything or even particularly seemed to notice (you ignore people in this situation in order to protect their dignity) ; I offered to help multiple times and then he finally allowed me to make him a strong natural brew of boiled stem ginger which I knew in advance could be of some help for the dizziness and the nausea – and it was- the point being though that he seriously should not have been there in the first place.
It will be obvious by now that there is a vast gulf between my own perception of what work means, the importance of self-preservation, and, well, sanity, and that of my J-colleagues (not all of them; there is a young guy who recently jumped at the chance to have his six weeks of paternity leave; I don’t think anyone believed he would have the cheek to actually take them, even though legally they are his right and I was delighted on his behalf; I have ‘sent him home’ before in the past when he was ill (“Er…. everyone….have you not noticed that Mr H is slumped on his desk, asleep with a high fever? Don’t you think he should have a Covid test and return to his house?) and he has willingly complied. He is certainly no martyr, and represents a younger generation that is perhaps more aware of basic human rights and is not quite as ingrained by ideas of self-negation or swamped inwardly with the death drive. But a large percentage of older people seem to literally want to suffer publicly, or at the very least are terrified of offending if they dare to actually prioritize themselves instead of their students, because taking a day off work is genuinely really shocking to many people, as though you have committed the ultimate sin (my logical answer to this being that we always have to make up for our lessons later with repeat lessons, so students don’t remotely lose out in any way- they are at worst mildly inconvenienced, in all reality probably just delighted they finally get a free hour or two to themselves; logically, there is no need for these profoundly masochistic displays of staggering, coughing, stoic wincing and sighing; the injured and unwell could instead just be at home; get better, and then come into work and do their lessons at a different time properly. I feel nothing but a deep and pitying disdain for such destructive behaviour (in truth, a broiling anger as well, which is probably coming across in the aggression manifested in this piece; I just can’t help it, although this might also stem from some of the passive aggressive ‘guilt of absence’ that I have let become ingrained in me from being here so long as well)
Just to repeat for clarification: nobody makes anyone behave like this. Legally, employees are largely protected. Everyone was extremely accommodating when I explained the situation to my J-bosses. And if someone is really unable to come in to work (say, if they have a stroke or a heart attack, no sorry I am getting nasty, but that is not far off the mark) then nobody will dispute it. But there is always, underneath, this insidious, unspoken understanding that you are supposed to somehow be like a soldier on the frontline and that you are abandoning your post and your fellow fighters if you give in to the cowardly spirit of self care when not well; this ‘samurai spirit’ of stamina or die is alive and well. The problem for me is that if you analyze what I see to be the reality of the situation, this just turns everyone into a huge, heaving ship of blithering fools.
Where the Sudanese doctor mentioned above has been very courageously putting her own life on the line to save those of other people who would die unless she did so, performing emergency caesarian sections and surgeries on both sides of the warring factions despite continuing death threats, prep/ cram school teachers are putting their own health at risk for a whole load of nothing. Just in order to teach some passively absorbed information, fiddly grammatical questions, that the students could be imbibing by themselves instead of being spoonfed. Of course, education itself is not nothing, and I take my responsibilities seriously to help students get into the universities of their choice – I happily sacrificed a few unpaid Sundays recently, for example, to do interview practice with some kids who were hoping to get into Tokyo Institute Of Foreign Studies (then again, I also get a bonus sometimes if everyone does well so it hardly makes me Jesu); Without the extra lessons, in all reality, they might not have passed – and that, after all, is what their hard working parents are paying us to do. I am aware of what is required of me, and do usually manage to deliver.
But now is May. The exams are nine months away. There is zero urgency to any of the studies. Things can be made up later. It is not difficult to catch up. There is no need to jeopardize your life or health for any of this baloney. I probably could have physically gone into work today, as I can walk almost normally, have no other problems, so could have sat down and just got on with it. But the doctor advised rest, as this is what leg injuries require (everyone knows this), and had I gone in on Tuesday or Wednesday, I could easily have risked falling again and being injured – with disastrous consequences. To me, the logic of 1. be ill 2. recover 3. then go back to work is irrefutable, and I categorically refuse to capitulate to the other way of thinking which is something along the lines of : 1. be ill 2. soldier through it and prolong the symptoms for no fucking reason whatsoever other than to be seen by others as heroic. 3 prolong the pain/ unwellness 4. eventually get through it but with a shining badge of otsukaresamadeshita pinned to your good boy lapel ……
Lest I be accused of Euro-centric cultural bias blah blah here and of not properly understanding this culture – I praise everything I love about Japan quite frequently here, and there is much to love, even revere, which is why we still live in the country – but I also reserve the right to call out what is shit whenever I feel like it – let’s bring in dead old pervert Johnny Kitagawa above, the music mogul and sexual predator behind pop goliath Johnny’s & Associates, who forced himself upon generations of handsome young boys and men in the same way as Harvey Weinstein did with women in Hollywood, a sickness that is so pervasive, everywhere – do this to get to the top else forget it – causing unbelievable trauma to untold legions of male pop stars and TV personalities who are only now coming forward with their stories and which will surely become a proper societal debacle; just like all the other cult leader assholes mentioned above, this is yet again an example of a malignant narcissist realizing his sordid needs by unscrupulously utilizing the minds and bodies of other people without any thought of the damage caused to them. In other words, just the ‘usual monster’.
Why do I mention Johnny, you wonder? In reality, there is no real connection between the pathetic situation I have been describing in terms of willing martyrdom at the workplace, where people are mindlessly sacrificing themselves in order to help others, rather than hurt them – and the legions of amoral and sick sexual predators. They are in fact polar opposites. I mention this only because it took a BBC reporter, Mobeen Azhar, an outsider, a non-Japanese person, to shed a much needed light on the situation, which has been an open secret for decades, but because of entrenched business related entanglements no one was willing to discuss openly (Japanese culture despises being exposed in this way by foreigners as it amounts to an extreme loss of face). Only now is there much hand-wringing in the press and social media as victims come forward and broach the tip of the vile iceberg; probably, though there have been brave attempts by some sections of the Japanese media to bring Kitagawa and his associates to justice for decades, even back in 1965- a futile attempt that was described as being like an ant biting an elephant – but if it hadn’t been for outside interference, the ‘revelations’ that are currently rocking Japan would never have happened. The media was finally forced to self-examine as the truth was already out there on the international web. This society is a very insular one, dare I say it even conspiratorial when it comes to maintaining the status quo and protected invested interests, even when that state of play is blatantly wrong (as with the Minamata disease mercury poisoning disaster, another atrocious scandal only made public when the American photographer Eugene Smith – urged by Japanese contacts – managed to bring about an exposé for Magnum photos, after which it was impossible for the corrupted and self serving business interests to escape scrutiny any further).
What I am trying to say is not that Japanese people can’t solve their own problems by themselves (in some erroneous and cancellable White Saviour moment of ‘Neil Knows Best’),
which they obviously can and do, if often at an exasperatingly slow pace from my own personal perspective, but I do also think that there is also nothing wrong with someone from outside, but also within, the system, commenting intelligently on aspects of society that are blatantly ridiculous in order to provoke discussion. Now is May : perhaps the most beautiful month in Japan, when the new green of late Spring is ecstatically beautiful; the sky, after the rains, the most rigorously clear blue you can imagine; flowers everywhere, summer coming, beautiful scents, a strong sense of life blooming and of possibility. Yet now is also, famously, the time of ‘Gogatsubyo’, or May Disease, when the suicide rate increases because the one decent holiday people have is over and students, teachers, salaried workers and all the rest of The Exhausted, just can’t face another year of grinding toil without enough free time and therefore decide to just end it all by jumping on the railtracks. I wrote an unflinching account of a local suicide in October of last year on here that I wasn’t able to reread because I felt it all too keenly but just had to get out of me (the train delays do often seem to happen on Wednesdays, day of Woe), but in the piece, I definitely did make specific linkages between the tragically high level of people taking their own lives and the sadomasochistic ‘work ethic’ of Japan that undeniably causes the suicides in the first place.
It is fine working hard; it is good to work hard, otherwise everything in the world would just sink into shite, but at the same time, it is also up to those in positions of responsibility to reject the overly punishing societal tenets of what constitutes ‘a good worker’. If you are a boss and you see someone struggling, practically unable to stand up by themselves, dizzy and pallid, white with pain, then you shouldn’t, in my view, applaud their ‘bravery’ and rectitude for doing their ‘duty’, but instead just send them home. Rather than a vicious cycle of baseless exhaustion, this would create a more humane, healthy environment in which people would know they have the security of restoration when needed, but can work quite happily in the meantime (I have been really enjoying my interactions with my students recently – it is an intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually quite stimulating job a lot of the time). You wouldn’t then have a situation in which one of my iller colleagues, a man I like in many ways but who really does take the title for Most Conspicuous Martyr that I know (“I was told by the doctors that my health situation is very bad and that I need to spend a month in hospital, but I can’t, because I am too busy”) – ooh clap clap, how martyrous you are!! !! – – is effusively willing to deny himself the healthcare he needs, despite the fact that he has two young children that he adores and needs to stay alive for, and despite the fact that the company itself would obviously allow him to take the time off if needed, but instead deliberately works himself into the ground while making sure everyone sees him doing this while he is in the process of self destruction. I try to persuade him to be more self-respecting and he does seem to listen, but then does nothing about it. The tendency is far too deeply osmosed, but it is exasperating because he is an extremely intelligent (and sensitive) person. The ball really is in his own court. And the company itself would actually also accommodate his situation quite easily; some employees take months, even a year off to recover from depression and nervous conditions and they are welcomed back without fuss; Japan is becoming less cruel in the workplace; employees are beginning to have more of a sense of self worth that isn’t completely tied to the corporation; so it isn’t so much the exterior requirements of companies making people behave like this a lot of the time, but the unquestioned cultural assumptions learned from childhood that plague individuals at the cellular, marrow level.
What can be done? You can’t change whole societies, well some people can even if I can’t – but as a teacher or writer you can at the very least impart your way of thinking to other human beings, present alternative possibilities of viewing the world and the society you live in, encourage other perspectives, particularly the ability to analyze cultural poisons rationally in order to live more freely (in the way that British teachers have been discussing the extreme dangers of the misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate). I have warned my students about religious cults, who stalk university campuses enlisting new, very vulnerable, recruits at the beginning of school years by luring them into ‘International Study Groups’ and the like but actually begin the brainwashing immediately, sometimes resulting in decades of entrapment; we have studied articles written by escapees who came to see the light. I wasn’t fearmongering, just presenting their individual accounts. I tell them about my own lifestyle; four days a week; part time with a lot of holidays, giving me room for other things, about the fact that I truly believe, well, it is a scientific fact, that human beings need rest and recuperation in order to function properly and that if they also feel this way then in the future they should seek out employment opportunities that offer this rather than just resigning themselves to a life of slavery; that, unless I need to stay late, I clock out at the exact time I am allowed to leave because I have worked hard that day and see no reason to hang around just to be clocked by others as a ‘hardworker’ (I have been told many times that I am an empath but also selfish, which is probably true; my masochistic tendencies are pretty negligible to be honest; I like helping people but am really not much of an auto-crucifier). The point is, I just want the students I teach to be able to see through obviously unhealthy and questionable ideas that are assumed by the masses to be correct; to question everything they are told; to decide for themselves whether what they are being told makes actual sense. To value themselves and their own instincts no matter what society says. To have the strength to resist. To logically evaluate what is told or expected from without and accept, or refute it, according to their heads and hearts and intuition. In short, in order not to fall prey to miserable situations that put their health and lives needlessly at risk : to THINK.
I am no leather queen. I hate harsh leather scents (on my own skin) – I can appreciate that nuance echoing off another person, particularly when worn with actual leather – I like the cool protection of it – but sometimes I do feel like a cuir moment on myself ;ideally a more unobvious one that doesn’t quite smell like a literal drying cow’s hide; dry, and distinctive; understated.
Sixty years apart, the quite reasonably priced Black Leather by J-Scent – a powdery, very musky, charcoal suede (like Bulgari Black without the rubber) makes a pleasing foil to the hyacinthine tang of the classic Cabochard; its pickled wince – sly, patchouli, aromatic leather that very clearly predecessed its younger male sibling, Aramis ( they were both created by perfumer Bernard Chant, the prime instigator of this genre) serving as a softer, interior undergarment to the sterner, more rigidly constructed outerwear : in tandem, in subtle dosage, they form an elegant, symbiotic togetherness.
D brought home a swag bag ‘o vintage for me the other night from a recycle shop he had been perusing for clothes and performance objets.
I was somewhat amazed.
For ¥4,000 ($29: ￡23), the jovial and ungreedy young owner standing among his hoards of bric a brac was quite happy to part ways with a full 100ml Chanel Nº19 lovely vintage eau de toilette splash bottle (the original dark green it was supposed to be, on top of an unopened 7ml parfum in perfect nick); a 1/5 used bottle of Revillon Detchema, a softly musk rose aldehydic; a pristine Diorissimo parfum in that oh so beautiful Parisian pink box – I must do my utmost to never let this one get grubby! – and, the only scent I had never smelled properly before, the rare cologne version of the inimitable Miss Dior.
Although neither of these venerable old Diors are perfumes I can wear believably, I just love to be able to smell them and own them.
Take them out, occasionally, on a whim.
Miss Dior , in parfum, is a bone-dry green chypre; cinched, to me, almost mean, the galbanum clary saged gardenia of its pitiless top note pared with the ambered moss leather of its base quite daunting and scarifyingly chic. I associate it mentally with Wallis Simpson types, and in fact the person who wore it the most convincingly for me, a girl on the periphery of my university friendships called Marge, had a similar silhouette, even hair style, even though it was the nineties. She smelled perfect in it – radiating a measured, almost cruel aura of self assurance. On me, instead, I remember the one time I wore Miss Dior extrait for a lunchtime meetup with an old Japanese music friend, it was the epitome of a hot mess: the wrong atmospheric conditions, sweaty and vile, the base accord just oily, animalic and sick.
Sometimes you just have to face facts and accept that no matter how much you respect a scent, it won’t necessarily reciprocate.
The cologne version I am wearing today is a new beast. The proportions are different. There is less crammed in urgency (Miss Dior vintage extrait is very pointy , angled and bladed; this cologne is rangier, warmer, softer, more generous; lighter, more masculine); the beginning almost Aramis-like on me, fading to a less pressurized – Miss Dior is a perfectionist – dispersion of musky daytime mosses that feels more casually becoming.
Where I failed miserably in the extrait, with this more rounded option, I think I might now credibly become something of a late-starting Monsieur Dior.
Diorissimo , truly a timeless work of extreme olfactory beauty that should never be tinkered with but discovered, like D’s spotting of my new bottle among the detritus of a junkyard – just left forever, like Snow White in glass tomb until kissed by a handsome prince decades later, is a magical white Rodin of a muguet that I tend to pick up and pass on to women who adore it. Over the years, this has happened many times – as on the right person this trembles and hallucinates in a feminine conversion of human to flower and flower to human that can leave me feeling ecstatic. I simply cannot and could not ever pull this one off. I have the wrong blood.
Some old Diorissimos are very oily jasmine indolic. Some just faded memories. Some, very potent, which sometimes corrupts the diaphanousness – you want pistellated porcelain bells, curved; green and white and erect in their self-certainty; not some slovenly old fluid oranging in a jar.
Modern editions are gassy and useless. In fact, I tend not to like the spray versions of this scent – even if some of them do last longer than past-their-best dabs (Diorissimo is a perfume, like youth, that evaporates quickly). And yet this particular vaporisateur is fresh and wonderful, the one I have dared to wear today, coinciding with a message this morning in England from Helen telling me that she had just been walking in a whole swathe of the flowers in a forest (“Today I found a woodland glade, carpeted with lily of the valley”). The suzuran flowers, equally beloved here in Japan as they are elsewhere in the world this time of year, spring up in some front gardens, or clandestinely by the side of the road and I always stop to smell them, but I don’t know if I have ever come across whole carpets of them (except in the (made up?) memories of my childhood, those unsulliable groves….): how delightful, then; how transformative, to stare on the flowers: crystalline the living moment.
The cool breathe of leaves. The otherworldly rapture of a flower in its glory; oblivious to all else.
This Diorissimo, pure as snowdrops: all springtime corollas of lilies, amaryllis; lilac – a sheer, unruffled muguet at the centre, that really sings on the skin ……. …… even mine.
The gourmand is a genre of perfumery I have generally gone off. But smelling this rather delicious perfume at a Fujisawa ( Fujisawa !) department store last week, and then trying it again today – but only on paper …. …..I know in one’s bones that there is something about this rich, cherry benzoin vanilla ( something like a Lutens Louve meets Guerlain Shalimar via Moschino Moschino )that I can’t quite deny.