Sunday, August 30, 2009

Parasols Optional (But Recommended)

All across the nation
Such a strange vibration
People in motion
There's a whole generation
With a new explanation
People in motion
People in motion

-"San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)"

The above-quoted 1967 flower child anthem might seem odd musical choice to be blasting on loudspeakers for the sunny August 15th ribbon-cutting ceremony for the glitzy glass-fronted New People complex in San Francisco's Japantown... and, well, yeah, it was. Especially considering the festivities to follow at the J-Pop Summit - Girlpunk bands, Loli-Goth fashion designers, and edgy Japanese artists. That's really about as far from the let-it-all-hang-out tie-dye aesthetic as you can imagine.

Could the song have been a deliberate reference to Viz Media CEO Seiji Horibuchi's hippie past? Probably. But it could also be a mission statement for New People iself, an if-you-build-it-they-will-come destination for those interested in a newer brand of Japanese culture and merchandise than the usual samurai swords, woodblock prints, and tea sets. And judging by turnout on opening day, these "New People" are already here. Lots of them.

A three-storey shopping center devoted to modern Japanese design, New People is the first of its kind in the United States. It has an art gallery, boutiques featuring Harujuku-style fashions, and a theater in the basement level that shows contemporary Japanese films. There are art books and jewelry, designer trinkets like dry-ice puffing smokestacks for the home (I really wanted one of these), baroque picture frames, and glitter-bedecked Lucha-style wrestling masks. Really fun stuff. But as a shopping experience, New People is - as yet - a bit too... new. When I finally got a look inside the building, a week or so later (entrance on opening day being a ticketed event, and thus impossible for anyone who didn't seriously plan ahead) there was a library-like hush to the place. Browsers wandered in a daze, apparently too intimidated by the pristine atmosphere to even ask questions, let alone, y'know, shop.

Will New People succeed? I'd like to think it will - the J-Pop Summit Festival was a rousing success (Red Bacteria Vacuum is now on my iPod playlist - Japanese punk rocks!), and I'm really eyeing those tabi-style shoes, but online reviews of the place have been mixed. Those who "get it," presumably the healthy sampling of American Lolitas who waited in line for hours to get a chance to attend a secret tea party with the Baby, the Stars Shine Bright designers, seem to love the place; others, probably like the bemused older crowd I saw on a quiet weekday morning, find it a letdown, not edgy or crazy enough to justify a special trip. Amusingly, though, most of the online criticisms I found sounded exactly like experiences I've had in Japan. A strangely slow elevator ride to an art gallery that turns out to be closed, for no apparent rational reason? Check! Confusing game of "find the theater box office"? (Tip: it's the cafe.) Check and check!

So yeah, if an "authentic" cultural experience is what you're really looking for - hey, this is it. And without buying a ticket to Tokyo.

1 comment:

  1. I hate to say it, but I think New People is gonna die the death. It always looks empty to me, it's got a ton of wasted space, and... Eh, maybe it's just me. I don't have any desire to go inside, much less to really care how it does. It might have had better luck if it hadn't opened in the middle of the worst economy of our lifetimes...

    Still, its opening was a rousing event, I must say.