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Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Bumper Book of Completely Useless Japanese Inventions

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It's not often that I feel a book is important enough to give it above-the-line review status. Some of my favorite novels of recent times didn't make it, so I couldn't think of what else would. But that was before I read The Bumper Book of unUseless Japanese Inventions.

Translated by Dan Papia, the title is a bit of a misnomer: all of the inventions described therein actually work, but it's almost impossible to imagine someone actually using them. Known as chindogu in Japan, some of these things about beggar description: what are we to make, for example, of the Cat Tongue Soother, the Personal Rain Saver (a kind of inverted umbrella with a hydraulic tank), or the Automated Noodle Cooler, a tiny wrist-attached fan? The book's introduction contains lines like "Inherent in every Chindogu is the spirit of anarchy." and "in even contemplating their use you enter a new and uncharted dimension of human endeavor."

Most of the chindogu were conceived by one Kenji Kawakami, who can only be described as the Thomas Edison from Planet Crack. Not since Salvador Dali made living rooms based on Mae West's face has someone exhibited this kind of deranged ingenuity. His chindogu range from the actually-would-be-pretty-useful (like a plastic screen with chopsticks built into it that can be used to stir-fry without oil splashing into your face) to the completely fucking demented, frequently with an emphasis on near-fetishistic materials and structures. Kawakami is obsessed with hydraulic tubes, surgical masks, pumps, umbrellas, and accessories for cats. Having trouble with falling asleep while you're supposed to be studying? No problem, Kawakami has the "Wide Awake Eyeopener," which is a coronet with attached clamps that snap onto your eyelids and hold them up. He made the clamps with laundry pegs. Then there's his Zipup Cold Mask, described as "for instant oral access," which I guess is supposed to allow you to smoke in an operating theatre but more accurately looks like something out of an S&M documentary; the Detachable Tooth covers which make the wearer look like Jaws from Moonraker; strap-on, milk-filled artificial male breasts, and, oh my God, the "Hay Fever Hat," which is nothing less than a fucking roll of toilet paper strapped to a girl's head.

The really disquieting thing is that day-to-day life in 21st century Japan compelled Kawakami to come up with the chindogu. Something actually made him think, "You know, Ping Pong is pretty fun, but it'd be so much better if I could play with my face instead of my hand! There's gotta be something I can do about this!" (the "Face Ping Pong Helmet") or "Natto beans are pretty hot! Why don't I make a plastic cover for my tongue?"

Even worse is the realization that, because according to "The Ten Tenets of Chindogu," every invention must be field-tested and found to work, Kawakami probably used all of the above items and more in real life. This becomes horribly disturbing when you think about things like the "Baby Mops," the description of which contains "After the birth of a child, there's always the temptation to say "Yes, it's cute, but what can it do?Until recently the answer was simply 'lie there and cry', but now babies can be put on the payroll, so to speak, almost as soon as they're born."

Bearing in mind that, as previously mentioned, some of the chindogu do have realistic practical applications, nothing can take away the fact that HE MOPPED HIS FLOOR WITH A BABY. He actually thought "Hm, baby crawling on the floor...floor needs to be mopped...EUREKA! I'LL combine THE TWO!" That's the kind of intuitive leap Kawakami's mind makes, and the kind that yours never should.

Nevertheless, if I'm ever stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash, Kawakami is the only person I would even consider wanting to have there with me. I know that by the time any other motherfucker would still be trying to scrape together a shitty fire from twigs, Kawakami would already have devised a mattress made out of rocks to correct his sleeping posture and a shit-flinging palm-tree catapult to attack other islands.
In fact, I'll go one better. For some time now I've dreamed of assembling an elite team of...I don't know what to call them, but badass motherfuckers ought to cover it, specialists in every field of creative endeavor, in order to kick it like the Futurists and dadaists used to.* I don't know who else would be on it at the moment (well, I have a few ideas), but if Kawakami is up for it...his place is already reserved.
*you would think forming a coherent group-structure would undercut the aim of irrational anarchy, but you would be wrong. Consistency IS the enemy.

As for the whole Open Source Media thing, we here at Swiftyworks support all manner of Open Source applications. It strikes me as interesting that Swifty made an ass of himself talking to Joi Ito, who's involved so heavily with CreativeCommons (and possibly CreativeCommons Japan/クリエティブ・コモンズ /日本) when we support Open Source Software and creative media in all forms.