Remembering David Bowie and His Strong Connections to Japan

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  • The lyrics “like some cat from Japan” from “Ziggy Stardust” are a clear indication of Bowie`s loving fascination with the land of the rising sun. Bowie, who tragically passed away Sunday, January 10th, was an international icon, finding home not only in the UK where he was born, but Germany where he recorded some of his most important work (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), and the USA where he mostly lived in the latter years of his life. This star, whose work constantly touched on the theme of being an outsider, also in many ways belonged to Japan, as Japanese culture and style heavily influenced much of his work.

    Japanese Theater Influences

    david bowie onnagata

    Bowie was heavily influenced by traditional kabuki and noh theater, both known for their stylized drama and visual effects. A pivotal period for him was his training under Lindsay Kemp in the 60s. It was through this London-based dancer, mime, and actor that Bowie learned about onnagata (女形) – kabuki male actors who play female roles – surely inspiring his androgynous style. The drama, the extravagance, the makeup, and the style of many of Bowie’s performances can be traced back to Japanese theatrical influences. Famous onngata Bando Tamasaburo himself (pictured above) even taught Bowie first-hand how to apply makeup. More about Bowie`s Japanese influences can be read about in the writings of historian Helene Thian in “David Bowie: Critical Perspectives.”

    Japanese Costuming and Kansai Yamamoto

    Kansai Yamamoto helped bring Japanese fashion into the world of modern international acclaim, debuting a collection in London in 1971. Bowie became so intrigued by his work that he reportedly flew out to ask Yamamoto in person if he would design outfits for his Ziggy Stardust tour (1972-73). The two quickly hit is off as artists and as friends. Iconic pieces of the tour were billowy samurai-inspired pantsuits and robes with bold kanji characters printed on them, long before kanji became popular in the West as T-shirt and tattoo designs.

    In a time when Japan still seemed mysterious to the rest of the world, Bowie and Yamamoto helped spark a renewed interest in the general public of all things Japanese. Yamamoto himself was influenced by classical Japanese elements such as hikinuki, a method of changing clothes quickly in kabuki theatre. (“Hikinuki”, 引き抜き, is a combination of the kanji/words “pull” (引く) and “slip out” (抜く), so you can imagine the dramatic effect onstage.)

    Visual Kei: The influence of a new fashion style?

    David Bowie, who obviously was influenced by Japanese fashion, is in turn widely cited to be one of the influences of Japan`s visual kei ( ヴィジュアル系) style. Trademarks of the style include large hairstyles, theatrical make-up, flamboyant costumes, and oftentimes androgynous characteristics, which does bring the beloved, departed artist to mind.

    The heavy metal band X Japan, featured above, is largely credited as being the first visual kei band on the scene in the early 80s. Visual kei is not limited to one musical genre but is also characteristic of electronic, punk, and J-pop bands as well. In the world of fashion, design, music, and other arts, it is oftentimes hard to pin down who influenced what, but the connections are definitely there.

    Continued Popularity in Japan

    Bowie’s death was a shock to his friends and fans all around the world, including many in Japan. The photo above shows a fan in front of a display showcasing Bowie’s last album in a music store in Tokyo. The signs are all ones of disbelief and admiration, calling Bowie a “ロックスターマン” (rock star man).

    According to the photographer Masayoshi Sukita, who shot many iconic portraits of Bowie, Bowie “is, and always will be [his] favourite subject.” The work above shows a more modest depiction of the artist on a Japanese subway. He appears contemplative, and somehow, very much at home.

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