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An Interview With Justin Isis

by Ralph Doege

While researching for my story Kago Ai und das Ende der Nacht, I stumbled over your story The Eye of the Living Is No Warmth on a website dedicated to Japanese idols. I would like to ask you a little bit about your biographical background and about the beginning of your idol worship. What is your story?

I’m not sure there’s a coherent story. Both of my parents were foreigners to the country I grew up in, and I’ve lived in different countries since then. I’m not sure that I’m not really an impostor pretending to be me…

Your mother is Australian and your father Italian and you have lived, at various times, in Italy and France, but you were born in the USA? That’s a lot of national identities…

Yes, my parents met in Italy and later moved to America. I was born during this period. I moved to Australia in my late teens for financial and visa-related reasons. I’ve only lived in Europe for brief periods, about two months in each country. I am not a real European; I feel like an impostor most of the time. I’ve never really felt at home in any country I’ve lived in.

Where did your interest for Japan come from?

When I was a young teenager I listened to Shibuya-kei music like Flipper’s Guitar, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Kahimi Karie, etc. and read a bunch of Japanese fashion magazines. Japan in the late 90s seemed like an alternate universe to me, and I always wanted to go to an alternate universe. But at the time it didn’t seem like it had anything to do with me; it seemed completely inaccessible and I didn’t think I could actually go there. Later, at university, I met some Japanese friends who encouraged me to study the language. When I finally arrived in the country, the culture had changed a lot from my teenage impression of it, but there were still remaining pockets of the things that interested me.

Reading Japanese fashion magazines doesn’t sound like the average hobby for an American teenager…

I didn’t relate at all to the area I grew up in, so I spent most of my time in my room, reading, listening to music, researching things on the internet. I was interested in foreign culture because of my background, so I tried finding information on music and clothes from other countries. But my interest in, for example, Japanese fashion, was at the time completely passive; I didn’t change my clothes or try to meet Japanese people or talk to anyone around me about it. This was around ’98, ’99 – at the time I had no idea anyone else knew or cared about something like gyaru-kei fashion. Now there’s a massive international community of people with the same interests, but back then, at least where I was living, and with the size of the Internet at the time, it was impossible to make the kind of connections you can make today.

It was the same with music; I listened to Ruins, Merzbow, Acid Mothers Temple, Boredoms, Can, Stereolab, death metal, any kind of experimental music I could find. But no one around me was interested in or knew about any of it, so it had no real influence on my life. It was all in my head, that entire period. I lived like a monk. At least, that’s how I felt inside.

What are your influences as a writer?

At the moment, three main spheres: Japanese Modernism (Mishima, Kawabata, Tanizaki, Akutagawa, Yumiko Kurahashi, Taeko Kono), 19th century French writers, especially „Yellow Nineties“ types (Flaubert, Huysmans, Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam and a few later ones like Raymond Radiguet and Pierre Guyotat), and then New Wave science fiction (Delany, Ballard, Dick, Wolfe, Brunner, Cordwainer Smith, and the rest). I’ve probably been influenced by tons of other writers, but these three groups seem to come up and play off each other the most. I’d also throw in writers like R.A. Wilson, Colin Wilson, Timothy Leary, etc.

Also comics: Dave Sim, David Mack, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Sam Kieth, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, any of those creators. Manga, everything from Erica Sakurazawa and Ai Yazawa to Junji Ito and Shintaro Kago. I’m also into French comics like Moebius, Enki Bilal, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roger Leloup. I feel like I should read more comics, actually…

I had difficulty a few days back, when I was trying to describe your stories to a Key Account from Random House. I tried to find relations to other writers and failed a little bit. I came up later with: Bukowski, de Sade, Huysmans in Tokyo’s neon light with glitter in the face. But that still doesn’t seem right. How would you describe your own writing?

Huysmans in Tokyo doesn’t sound bad…Huysmans at club Atom, maybe it could happen…

I always wanted to be Richey from Manic Street Preachers, to write the kind of books he would have written if he’d been a fiction writer instead of a lyricist. The combination of beauty and terror. I’m not sure I can describe my writing either, other than to call it an attempt to destroy reality and replace it with something else. I don’t think of writing as an intellectual exercise, it seems more like a process of secretion or metabolism, something that results from the digestive system as much as the nervous system. I think writers who seem to regard language as a physical substance are the ones who interest me the most. Writing seems like some kind of scar tissue or pearl from an oyster, a biological product of irritation or damage which comes to exist apart from the organs that produced it. I’m describing here the writers who interest me, I mean. I don’t care about people who are just trying to pass the time or tell a story. Some people look at writing as magic; I think it’s magic in the same sense that pissing in the street is magic. „Pissing is a small thing, but I have to do it myself.“ I think one of the Chinese sages said that.

For you it seems “transformation” is a big deal. The alchemical thought of transformation of “shit (or lead) into Gold” (see your book cover) comes across as a transformation of “nature” or “reality” into something “artificial”.

I think I look at reality as a set of conventions, and I associate it with nature. These conventions have always seemed like a prison to me, and I’m always looking for ways to escape or destroy them.

Most people have an idealized view of nature, or at least they connect more strongly with natural settings than they do with artificial structures. The opposite is true with me; I’ve always wanted to live somewhere completely artificial. I look at artificial structures as being extensions or secretions of the human mind, so entering an entirely artificial or constructed region feels like entering a part of the unconscious or stepping into the nervous system. I also prefer, for example, artificial or fluorescent lighting to natural lighting, and artificially-tanned people to people who go out in the sun.

The Italian Futurists wanted to destroy the moon and replace it with an electric light; that idea seems beautiful to me. The sun should probably be replaced with some kind of monitor as well. Everything should become a parodic or prosthetic version of itself. I feel like this process mirrors what happens with our cultural constructs anyway; cultures become caricatures of themselves. Maybe this was what Bataille was talking about when he said, „lead is the parody of gold, air is the parody of water, the brain is the parody of the equator, coitus is the parody of crime.“ Everything eventually becomes its opposite.

Most people think that human beings are closer to plants or animals than they are to rocks or minerals, but I feel more closely the mineral nature of life, the similarity to rocks, hard elements. It’s like in one of Mishima’s books when the narrator realizes that the Golden Temple in Kyoto and his own body are both made of combustible carbon.

There are hard things in our bodies too, teeth and bones. Even things we’ve made: I think I look at them as extensions…the iPhone seems like an organ, I feel closer to the iPhone than I do to a cat. The cat is an independent entity, it has its own agenda, but the iPhone feels more like a biological product; its only purpose is to help us communicate, to assist our nervous systems. Our bodies take in minerals from the environment and make teeth and bones, and now we’ve taken minerals from the earth and made the iPhone; it seems like the same process to me.

As far as the music, with someone like Nakata Yasutaka, you could argue that he makes everyone sound the same, like a robot, but I don’t know…the songs, Electro World, Ceramic Girl, that seems like the universe I want to live in. I like idols who are as inhuman as possible. Or even with models, someone like Buriteri, or the more extreme banba models from several years ago, they don’t even seem like human beings anymore…I don’t know what they are.

Is there a special book that influenced you the most?

Probably Wilson and Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy. I read it when I was 16 and I don’t think I realized what I was getting into it, it ended up changing my life. I read it again recently and it seemed like a completely different book; I hadn’t understood so much of it the first time around. But I think my first reading of it was the first time I realized that a book could influence your life rather than just being something to pass the time. I read a lot of books growing up but always felt detached from them; Illuminatus was the first thing that directly engaged me.

The other one that stands out is Akutagawa’s A Fool’s Life. I found it by chance in a library when I was a first year at university, an oversized out of print copy on which a single section had been included on each page, along with occasional sparse illustrations, most of them abstract. The Japanese had been printed side by side with an English translation. Sometimes each page contained only a single line of text, each of which seemed to have resulted from, in Akutagawa’s own words, „diseased nerves, lucid as ice.“ I read it through about six times in a row. It still seems like a perfect book, the stylistic focus, the extent to which everything irrelevant has been removed, each page reducing an entire period of life to a single glittering image.

How far are you with your next book(s)?

Welcome to the Arms Race is almost finished, I just have two more stories to complete for it. Girl Revolution is still mostly in the early stages, although I’ve finished a few stories from it. The latter book is pretty deeply tied to my life, and given recent events in Tokyo, the situation is going to affect the book…it would be impossible not to take the recent events into account, and things I write from now on will probably reflect that.

Are there particular things you are interested in at the moment?

Starting a dance unit, getting more clothes, meeting more interesting people. Music. I’ve really only gotten started with writing…

I am more than 8000 kilometers away from Japan, but even for me are the happenings there at the moment [the earthquake and nuclear crisis of early 2012] something like a borderline experience. Once more I am questioning my work and my place in this life. I was afraid for my friend Kyoko and you – as strange as it sounds: even for Tsunku and the H!P girls – and this infected and disabled my daily life. I am so grateful for how Tsunku and H!P influenced my life that I am really worrying for them. I don’t know if you can understand that?

I understand it completely. There are people in Tokyo now who are very important to me… I am calling everyone now, every day, to make sure they’re all right. My first impulse was to catch the shinkansen and go there immediately; all I could think of was being close to my friends. Circumstances have made that impossible, but I feel in some way that Tokyo’s health is tied to my own. It’s been difficult for me to do much in the past few days other than check the news and call my friends.

Will you stay in Japan?

I’ll be around for another few months, but beyond that it depends on work circumstances. The economy is likely to worsen. I don’t have any intention of leaving though, and I’ll stay as long as possible. As I said, I feel tied to Tokyo, and I still feel that my future is there.

If you moved from Japan, which country would you choose?

Italy is the first place that comes to mind. I’d prefer not to live in the Anglosphere – Australia, America, or England. If I went to Italy I’d have to learn Italian more seriously, work seriously at becoming a fake European. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, I have friends in these places as well and could see myself living in them.

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Doege & Justin Isis

Justin Isis is a model, fashion designer and science fiction writer who lives in Japan and has lived in America, Australia, Italy, and various other countries. His last book was I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, and his next book is Welcome to the Arms Race. He is interested in music, ice cream, and Situationism.

Ralph Doege (*1971, Germany) wrote stories and essays for several magazines and anthologies. He was nominated for Kurd-Laßwitz-Prize and Deutsche Science Fiction Prize for his story “Schwarze Sonne”, and he is the editor of the anthology Julio Cortázars Fantomas gegen die multinationalen Vampire und andere Erzählungen aus und über Lateinamerika (Julio Cortázar’s Fantomas against multinational Vampires and other stories from Latin America). In 2010 he released his first story collection Ende der Nacht.

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