Words and interview by Rafe Arnott, photography courtesy of Mikio Hasui
Not only an accomplished and sought-after visual artist, but also a director, commercial and portrait photographer, Hasui’s love for music – jazz in particular – has led him to curating hardcore high-fidelity for personal use. Built with an ear to paying homage to the era when the jazz he loves most was being recorded, Hasui sought to put in place sound systems which capture the timbre and tone of original ‘60s and ‘70s recordings.
He splits his time between a Meguro City studio (part of Tokyo) with integrated residence and a custom dome home in Chino, near Nagano – both of which he helped design. Hasui, who is now 65, dreamed of owning a huge audio system in the style of the traditional jazz kissaten (cafes) he used to frequent in his youth more than 40 years ago. In his 50s he was able to realize this dream and now has dedicated JBL and Altec-based systems for each home.
Resistor Mag caught up with Hasui recently to discuss, photography, vintage hi-fi, music, graphic design, and the impact of the global pandemic on art, life and basic human communication.
Rafe Arnott: Mikio, when you were turning 60 years old you spoke of hitting the reset button on life… could you explain what you meant by that? Looking back now, five years later, do you feel like you accomplished a reset?
Mikio Hasui: In Japan, turning 60 is one of the milestones in life — called ‘Kanreki.’ Everyone celebrates when one turns 60; you have had five cycles of 12 years. This means you have finished a chapter in your life, and I celebrated Kanreki five years ago.
I chose to live on my own when I was 15 years old. I was still a high-school student, but I worked many different jobs to make a living. I paid my tuition, managed to graduate from high school, and went to a university. However, I became interested in a job as a designer at the design company where I was hired as a part-timer and got a full-time job there after dropping out of university. Since then, I have been working in the fields of designing, advertising, and commercial photography for 40 years. It has been such an interesting and exciting time that the last four decades have passed by quickly. I was blessed with many good friends and mentors and became one of the top creators in the Japanese advertisement industry.
When I turned 60, I thought about wanting to spend more time producing creative photos. I was determined to work in artistic photography and videos rather than commercial photography. I had applied for the O-1 visa and had been granted a three-year visa by the United States, so I rented an apartment in New York. I was going back and forth between New York and Tokyo for two years. I had reduced the amount of work in Tokyo, but still held several regular jobs that often required me to go back and photograph in Tokyo. In the meantime, I was still able to focus on my work in New York. There are not many photographers over 60 years old going around art galleries with their creations in the States, so people often looked at me with funny expressions. But, overall, it was fun.
When I came back to Japan, I moved to Nagano to spend more time producing works. I have just rented a small studio next to my house and am ready to work on my stuff. I am not sure if I have been able to “hit the reset button on life,” but I would say that my life after turning 60 years old has been enriched.
Nevertheless, the pandemic of Covid-19 has affected the economy all over the world, as well as in Japan. The advertising industry has been hit particularly hard. However, I do feel like that the world will transform into something more organic and richer from now on without people having to drastically change their lives. I think I may feel that way because I switched my lifestyle from one that prioritized economic success to one where I focus more on artistic activities at the age of 60. Increasing contact with nature and reducing encounters with information overload is the way to soothe our souls.
Rafe Arnott: Your photographic career has spanned decades and seen you focus your lens on myriad subjects in both your personal and commercial work. Do you feel satisfied with what you’ve accomplished so far, or is it a work in progress like a play with an opening act, second act, etc?
Mikio Hasui: As I mentioned in the first answer, I have been focusing more on personal works than commercial photography. It was not because I was unhappy with myself working as a commercial photographer, but rather that the quality of the photos required for advertisements had been becoming more practical. I think the Japanese approach to advertising is not as practical, but essentially more personal and dramatic. Thus, my current works have been blurring the boundary between commercial and personal. In other words, more artistic works with personal approach are required to express ads. This trend is more apparent in video than in photography. From that perspective, my style has been transitioning and moving away from the commercial approach, which has resulted in a decrease in job offers for commercial videos and photos. But, I think the quality of each work is becoming more in-depth and meaningful. This feels like an opening to a new view of the world.
Rafe Arnott: Unless you have lived in a place, it can be difficult to understand how the culture effects processing life experiences – which determine the formation of one’s character. Could you relate how growing up in Japan – as opposed to the UK, for example – shaped the choices you made?
Mikio Hasui: That is a particularly challenging question. For sure, I identify as a Japanese man who was born and raised in Japan. However, if asked what part of the Japanese cultural environment I was brought up in, I would say I am more influenced by foreign cultures. The music I was influenced hugely by in high school was jazz. I listened not only to American jazz music but also modern European jazz music. However, jazz was just a musical influence for me; it greatly impacted my view of life. I used to read biographies of, and books by many jazz musicians and was also interested in modern art. I was neither exposed to Japanese music nor art as much as I was to Western cultures. However, I was inspired by all the cultures, and approached them with the sensitivity of a Japanese person.
It is hard to explain what it is, all I can say is that something in myself as a Japanese man took the jazz music and modern art into myself and formed them into something else. The result of this is the photos and videos I currently create. It is often said that my works have a serene quality to them, particularly in foreign countries. They say my framing is precise and accurate as well, which I think may be due to the Japanese’s own aesthetic. I believe my work has quite a bit of the ideological essence of Wabi-Sabi. I have been especially trying to focus on expressing my Japanese side in colors and forms in my works. For instance, the interpretation of monochrome is the black-and-white in the Western culture, however, to me, the black is the color of the Sumi ink, which never gets crushed. The white is the color of the silk which never gets washed out.
Rafe Arnott: You have serious hi-fi systems at both your homes. What was the inspiration to pursue this endeavour? I’d read previously that you frequented kissaten in Tokyo, did this play a prominent role?
Mikio Hasui: Since high school, I aspired to be a jazz musician. For a few years, I made money playing at night clubs. The places I studied jazz music the most at were the jazz cafes — kissaten — we had so many of them in Japan at the time. They had large hi-fi audio systems that played records at full blast. It sounded so real that it felt like the musician had come out of the speaker and played the songs right there. I would spend days listening to jazz for hours in these cafes. I was not making much money and living in a tiny old apartment back then, so the jazz cafes were the only place I could genuinely enjoy jazz music. Then I got married and had kids. I was busy making a living for the family and could not afford to spend money on an audio system.
When I finally became financially comfortable in my 40s, I felt the urge to experience the sound I used to listen to. The audio systems used at the jazz cafes had become vintage by that time. Although audio systems have evolved significantly to have incomparably better sound, strangely, to me, it felt like a backward evolution of audio. Music media has transformed from records into CDs, and from CDs to network audio. People used to have an entire wall filled with records, but now, millions of songs can be stored on a small hard disk. I was still happy with records. So, I went to a used audio store and got an old audio system which was huge in size. But I had to get it in that size. I have not had any interest in the current audio systems since then. Why? I do not know. Is it nostalgia? No. The jazz music I admired comes primarily from 60s to 70s, so an audio system from that period is the best fit to playing that music. It makes great sense to listen to the music of the time on a sound system from the time. If I were a fan of modern music, I would buy the latest audio system. It is the tribute I pay to those musicians.
Rafe Arnott: Some say music is an analog time continuum and breaking it into discrete, digitized blocks of information for reassembly compromises the signal’s fidelity. What are your thoughts on the digital playback of music? Do you have both digital and analog sources in your sound systems? Could you please discuss the components in each of your systems.
Mikio Hasui: Even if music is played using an electronic device, it needs the air vibrations to reproduce the sound. The air vibrations are an analog and are physiologically delivered to our bodies. In short, air vibrations are important, but I think they can be produced either digitally or in an analog way. In fact, when a record is played on an analog device, the sounds are transformed into electronic signals and produced by vibrating a paper cone inside the speakers. In that way, the analog sound can only be produced by phonographs. Modern digital sound devices and systems are not too far from achieving and recreating the original sound due to their rationality and efficiency. However, the sound from these devices always comes with a color; it is not the color of the original sound, but the color created by the individual characteristics of the audio device.
If all audio systems are made to create original sounds, they will all lose their character. They will end up pursuing waveforms, and it will be boring. I believe the meaning of an audio device is to give various colors to the original sound, depending on the different devices. That is why there are audio files and audio music players. My hi-fi devices are mainly from Altec and JBL. They are both from the West Coast, but their sounds are contrasting. The sound is driven through a handmade vacuum tube on an Altec device while it is created through a tube amplifier from McIntosh and a germanium amplifier from JBL on a JBL device. I also have vintage record players from Garrard and Thorens from the 60s and 70s, as well as a cartridge from Ortofon. I have been using some of them for almost 20 years. The newer ones I have are a CD player and a network amplifier.
Rafe Arnott: I understand that you were involved in the design and construction of both your Tokyo studio/atelier and your home near Nagano (about three hours drive northwest of Tokyo), can you talk to me about how you approached both projects from a design and requirements perspective?
Mikio Hasui: The studio in Tokyo was built to double as my home. It is a three-story steel-framed building with a dark room on the first floor. I am mainly using it as my office, but it is my home when I am in Tokyo. I was quite particular about building the house in Nagano. It is a dome-shaped house designed by Dr. Fuller (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminster_Fuller). I had come across this house when I was working for a homebuilder and had made up my mind to build the house. I finally had it built in 2013.
What I can say after I started to live there is that it is more spacious than it looks from the outside and has amazing acoustics, which is perfect to play music on my audio system. The only disadvantage is that there are no flat surfaces for my works and photos to be hung, and it can be hard for some of my furniture to be placed. But that is not really a problem for me. This year, I built a small studio dedicated for portraits next to this dome house. It can be converted into a photo gallery if not in use. I will be taking lots of portrait pictures of everyday people, which is my new project for the future.