Kansai Yamamoto is that rare thing, a complete artist. His work covers design and so much more, it’s about fashion, it’s about life and the vibrance of ancient and modern Japanese Culture. The Tokyo Neon, 24-hour living, bright lights, big city and his work has had a global influence. No one will ever forget the classic work that he did with David Bowie but what few people understand is that he was already on the creative path when Bowie asked him to design for him (see below). Bowie didn’t discover him, I am told he saw my picture in Vogue of Kansai’s collection with Marie Helvin. Kansai is the architect of the conceptual ‘Super Shows’, which incorporate performance and fashion and Japanese traditional Kabuki drama.
I first met Kansai in London in 1970 when I photographed his collection for Vogue and I have been inspired by our friendship ever since. I am huge fan of Japanese culture, a Japohile in fact and would love to spend more time there. We were re-united in 2012 when he came to London to meet with the V & A Museum, where he did a three-day show and he invited me to come out to Japan for his Hello Japan Super Show in 2013.
He very kindly flew my assistant and myself out, we were collected at the airport and were driven through the neon skyline of Tokyo to a hotel that he had designed. Kansai and his team looked after us royally and I visited the most incredible Sushi restaurants in Tokyo with him, where I was treated like a King. Kansai also came with me to Nara and for two weeks every night he took us to dinner. It was so wonderful to be reunited with such a dear friend.
While we were in Nara he came with me to the Zen temples and it was really interesting that I was a Westerner looking east and he was an Easterner looking west. He loved bright colours and pop art, while I was really moved by the tranquillity and natural colours and reflections in the rural Zen temple. At one point he said to me, “That this is the place you like, like the set of an old Samurai movies (and then he pointed to a vase of vividly coloured flowers and said) this is what I like, I like bright colours!” We both laughed at our different perspectives and then headed back to Tokyo on the high-speed bullet train, where you genuinely can stand a pencil up on the table, while the train moves through the beautiful landscape.
We were then into the three days of rehearsal for ‘Hello Japan’. I arrived at this huge auditorium where Kansai took me to his dressing while he changed into another bright and fabulous costume for the rehearsals. Everyone so revered Kansai, all the cast, technical staff and performers. The assistants to the performers dress with black veil over their faces and it is understood that they are invisible to the Japanese audience (see below).
Not speaking Japanese I could only get the vibe as everyone responded immediately to his every instruction and stage directions all of which seemed all to be in his incredible mind. It was amazing to see a maestro at work. I noticed that if the performers didn’t give it 100 percent that he would push them to give their best and that was the intense process leading up to the opening of the show.
The show it self was a triumph, which I shot with three Canon movie cameras to capture the incredible energy. On the evening of the last day of the rehearsals, Kansai gave a huge pep talk to all the cast a crew and distributed a can of Red Bull to each and everyone. He lifted up the microphone three times and led them in a massive Samurai cry of ‘Hai, Hai, Hai” which nearly took the roof off just, to rev up all the performers. Then they went through the final rehearsal and the show followed the next evening and was an amazing success. I can’t show it all here as I shot so much, needless to say at a certain point I was in tears at the beauty of the performance. At the end I flung my arms around Kansai who looked rather shocked as it’s clearly not the thing to do according to Japanese etiquette but he gave me a beaming smile and said ” Thank you for being part of this and thank you for coming Clive san. In the days that followed I filmed and interviewed Kansai and I can’t wait to return to the place I consider my second home, the land of the rising sun. With the best and most beautiful flag of all!