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The Japanese Art of Selling

ADVERTISING PHOTOGRAPHY IN JAPAN 4 Sponsored by the Japan, Advertising Association,

Tokyo and New York: Kodansha 580 photo plates, $80

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THE world's first photographic nude advertisement was created in Japan in 1922. Taking the language of allurement established in Western ads, the Kawaguchi Photo Studio of Tokyo upped the ante and concocted a poster for port wine that featured a bare-shouldered young lady hoisting a glass. Today the image would not get a second glance. By contemporary standards, it is commonplace, even demure.

Judging from this collection of 580 photographs by 221 photographers, the Japanese advertising industry still feels that it must play catch-up. Claiming that Japanese advertising need not fear comparison with the work of other nations, Masaya Nakamura, chairman of the Japan Advertising Photographers' Association (APA), inserts a note of competition. ``As Japan rose to the status of an economic superpower,'' he says, ``it also became an advertising superpower.''

The style of these photographs ranges widely, from the icy chic of cosmetics ads, through an assortment of deft mixed-media experiments, to densely suggestive postmodern narratives that allude vaguely to whatever product or service is at hand. Most of the photos are aggressive, outfitted with high-octane colors, ready to fight for space in what Mr. Nakamura calls an ``advertising-rich'' Japan.

As advertising images have worldwide, these photographs borrow freely from contemporary international arts styles, like neo-realism and neo-pop. There are heady surrealist collages, and an odd amalgam of movie-myth images.

The themes and setups of these pictures may sometimes seem derivative (people romping on beaches; myopic close-ups of watches, jewelry, and alcoholic beverages). Yet they are delivered with such proficient technical expertise, such punctilious orchestration of text and image, that they are impressive nonetheless.

Nakamura is quick to point out that advertising is not an uninflected mode of communication. He acknowledges that it purveys dreams, and ``catches vague desires on the wing, ... [giving] them direction and form.'' That seems more a description of poetry than advertising, but the two compete for the terrain of inchoate longing. The question that this collection of images forcefully raises is whether that terrain is now worldwide.

Or, does the world distribution of upscale consumer goods signal the existence of a cosmopolitan culture - one ready for the vocabulary of an increasingly homogenized world sales pitch?

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The international language of these images is unmistakable. English copy is frequently used alone, or in combination with Japanese. Most of the models are occidentals, not orientals, a long-standing Japanese convention that always comes as something of a surprise since most products are directed at Japanese consumers. Willowy women and deep-drenched glamour abound. But a significant percentage of the men and women sport the athletic look of the late 1980s.

Yet there are subtle giveaways that these images are still culturally anchored. Space is contracted; subjects are tauntingly posed. Nature as a backdrop often appears bleached, bent, or blurred. This is not the nature of the North American or European sensibility. These images are urban and urbane. The many nighttime scenes suggest travellers passing through the weary uniformity of international hotels and piano bars.

Japanese automobiles, stereos, televisions, VCRs, and even business management schemes have a worldwide market, but if these images are any clue, it will be a long time before advertising becomes truly international. Local cultural values have proved more resistant than speculators of this century have been able to foresee.

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