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The nonsense machines of Maywa Denki

Nobumichi Tosa and his machines

TOKYO (TR) – A crowd has gathered around Nobumichi Tosa in the exhibition hall. Adorned in his trademark turquoise blue shop uniform and necktie, the 37-year-old president of Maywa Denki is demonstrating the use of one of his latest machines, titled “Planter,” by manipulating a joystick.

The piece contains a vertically mounted glass cylinder of oil. With each movement of the joystick, small needle-like feelers arranged intermittently around the tube’s circumference at the top stir the opaque liquid, sending individual streams tumbling down along its length.

“Planter” is one element in “Edelweiss Series,” Maywa Denki’s collection of machines that together tell the story of a mythic society so dominated by materialism that its females are willing to accept sterility in lieu of sacrificing the pursuit of cosmetic beauty.

Sensing confusion amongst the now silent exhibition-goers, Tosa pauses and then moves the joystick quickly in multiple directions, causing the plumes to rain down much more swiftly. This generates a few muffled laughs.

“I guess that almost everybody is just sort of superficially looking at my work,” says Tosa from a conference room after closing time of his ongoing exhibition “Maywa Denki: The Nonsense Machines” at the NTT Intercommunication Center in Hatsudai, Tokyo.

To look superficially at any of Tosa’s work would likely mean to miss the meaning. Once the surface “nonsense” of his complicated machines, goofy toys, and self-playing instruments has been put aside, serious commentary, humor, and revelations about some of Tosa’s innermost puzzles are revealed. Through this, he is simultaneously taking a peek inside himself and creating one of Japan’s more recognizable brand names for kitsch, a commodity he hopes to soon expand overseas.

Maywa Denki’s self-playing guitars

“In Japan, the mainstream is dominated by companies like Panasonic or Sony. But Maywa Denki works in parallel. We are a niche market,” Tosa laughs as he moves to the empty seat to his right and thrusts his hands in front of himself to demonstrate his point.

Indeed, Maywa Denki operates in an electrical world all its own.

One of its earlier product lines is “Naki Series,” a lineup of 26 fish-themed manifestations. Attention to design, careful craftsmanship, and a healthy dose of humor, have contributed to these imaginative creations of glass, steel, and plastic: a xylophone in the shape of a fish skeleton that contains light bulbs that light up — circuit breaker included — when the keys are struck; a rotating harp whose playing surface is a series of glass cups arranged along a steel rod in a manner to fit the contours of a carp’s body.

Most products are displayed with detailed shop drawings and pictures to explain their use, if any. From drafting table to fabrication, a product’s development could take anywhere from one week to three or four years.

“Fish Cord,” an electrical extension cord complete with fish head (male end) and tailfin (female end), is one of Maywa Denki’s signature pieces. Along with the very popular wind-up instrument dolls in “Knockman Family,” it is one of the few works widely available for sale, priced at 3,800 yen.

The origin of “Naki Series” goes back to a nightmare about fish Tosa experienced when he was young. This subsequent outpouring of fish handiwork is a means for him to understand what has become a personal psychosis.

A Maywa Denki sculpture

Tosa, whose university schooling was in art, likens this mental approach to the Japanese tradition of placing okimono, small ivory carvings of samurai, mythic creatures, or beautiful women popularized in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), inside a home as a sign of spirituality.

“Japanese people believe that many things have life,” he says. “For me, I believe that ‘Fish Cord’ has life.”

Like his work, the thin-framed Tosa, in heavy black glasses and bulky blue Maywa Denki “Zihotch” time-announcing wristwatch (complete with rotary phone dial), chooses his words very carefully when speaking about his products’ origins and his existential beliefs.

“‘Why do I make things?’ That is a big question,” he explains. “But to me, this question is equivalent to other big questions: ‘What is life? What is God? What is space? Who am I?’ For me, if I can understand myself, I can make myself.”

In summary: I make, therefore, I am.

His family has been a huge influence on Maywa Denki, which is today composed of only Tosa and a few part-time workers.

“Do it to conquer, take it to conquer,” a pseudo-Darwinian phrase, is the family motto. Tosa’s father, Sakaichi, who founded Maywa Denki originally as a vacuum tube company in 1969 only to suffer through bankruptcy proceedings 10 years later, used to tell his children after a large plate of food had been placed at the center of the family dining table: “If you don’t get something (to eat), it is because you are weak.”

Emboldened by such an upbringing and, as Tosa emphasizes, a strong imagination, he and his brother Masamichi restarted Maywa Denki in 1993 under its current art motif. In 2001, Masamichi retired for reasons unknown, leaving the company to Tosa.

Maywa Denki’s “Fish Cord”

Tosa waves his right hand in an arcing motion through the air and exclaims: “My brother is a strange person! He is like a shooting star!”

It was his brother’s purchase of a synthesizer, though, that helped introduce Tosa to a new form of music. Tosa found the sounds made by this instrument and those of the Moog synthesizer featured on Isao Tomita’s legendary debut record, which he purchased during high school, to be absolutely shocking. It was the first time he had heard machine-only music.

In middle school, Tosa played percussion in the school brass band. This start eventually developed into a pop band heavily influenced by the pop of Duran Duran and the clanking sounds of Kraftwerk.

“Tsukuba Series” is a group of robotic instruments that reflects Tosa’s vision of what today constitutes music. To him, the computer and synthesizer are yesterday’s news.

“I think the iPod or the synthesizer is information music,” he says. “It is a wealth of information only. I think music should be from materials. It should have a material sound.”

With Tosa’s tongue not too far from his cheek, many of the electronic instruments he created for “Tsukuba Series” are more or less Rube Goldberg creations with an anachronistic twist: electronics provide digital input instructions and the physical contact of strings and drums create an analog output.

In “Guitar-La,” six guitars, fanned from their necks vertically on a stand, are wired to an electric keyboard that sends signals to hammers placed strategically above their strings. “Taratter” is comprised of a pair of tap shoes with wires running to hand-held control paddles that have switches for activating the small hammers attached to the front of each shoe. The latter product’s description claims, “Comfortable vibration cures foot problems.”

Throw in a few cymbals, strings, and various other thumping and tapping instruments and an entire digitally-driven analog orchestra emerges.

“Edelweiss Series,” though, is where Tosa shifts gears. It is his commentary on how consumerism has swallowed post World War II Japan to the point of absurdity. “Compared to a century ago, Japanese women today spend a lot of money and time trying to make themselves look beautiful,” Tosa explains. “Our society has become so materialistic.”

The story is a twisted Orwellian tale of birth, rebellion, and death as told through a text that accompanies more of his metal machines.

Tosa’s writing at times takes on the feel of an anime script. Of “Poodles,” a canine-shaped steel chomping machine, Tosa writes: “This deadly weapon was aimed at crushing the females into pieces and symbolized the strong jaws that the males had once possessed.”

Maywa Denki’s “Newton Gun”

Other machines are less violent, but no less intriguing. “Deka-Savao” is a smooth white mask that separates down the middle and splits laterally to reveal the wearer’s face. “Newton Gun” is a rifle with a pair of calipers that releases an apple when the trigger is pulled.

In addition to his gadgets and ever-present blue shop uniform, produced by fashion house agnes b., Maywa Denki has made a name for itself in Japan through Tosa’s appearances on such television shows as “Daredemo Picasso.”

But Tosa wants to take Maywa Denki overseas by establishing his brand in Europe and the U.S. As a start, Maywa Denki’s first international “product demonstration” – the phrasing Tosa uses to more accurately describe his concerts – took place in Paris last year. As well, items from “Knockman Family” and “Fish Cord” have begun finding their way onto overseas-based Internet shopping sites. The next step will be to open complete overseas stores.

Eventually Tosa hopes to encounter a new philosophy and develop new machines as a result. “Maywa Denki doesn’t want to be big,” he explains. “Maywa Denki wants to keep changing with the times.”

Note: This article originally appeared in November 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.