Japanese Steampunk!: An interview with Kenny Creation and Luke Chaos

Poster for the Steampunk Garden, Episode 4: Celtic Fantasy

Poster for the Steampunk Garden, Episode 4: Celtic Fantasy

Meeting representatives from international communities is always one of the great pleasures of running this blog, and recently, Luke Chaos stopped by my Inbox to introduce the Tokyo Inventors Society and the seasonal event that they run: Steam Garden. How can I describe the event? On their website, their 4th Steam Garden event reveals that they are extremely interested in exploring different alternate histories while retaining a sense of high adventure:

It is now clear that the time-travelers are leaping across parallel worlds, where history is different every time. Somewhere in the middle of the 19th century, they arrive in a world where the Celts survived the Roman Empire, in their secret druidic villages. After a disastrous “steam war” during the industrial revolution, Europe goes dark and the Celts reclaim the British Isles, ruling from New Dublin. Here, the airship has to make a forced landing!

Don’t believe me? Well, check out their video trailer to boot.

I got to chatting with Luke and his partner-in-crime Kenny Creation about the steampunk and how the Tokyo Inventors Society see things from the land of the rising sun….

First, a brief introduction about Kenny and Luke, and then onto the interview!

Kenny Creation (left) and Luke Chaos (right)

Kenny Creation (left) and Luke Chaos (right)

Kenny Creation was born in Japan and has also lived in Los Angeles. He is a well-known alternative fashion icon in Tokyo and is the leader and vocalist of industrial rock band “I am still in the haze.” In 2011, he decided to introduce steampunk to Japanese club culture and started planning “Steam Garden,” Japan’s first steampunk entertainment & fashion event.

Luke Chaos was born in England and lives in Tokyo. He is the leader of extreme noise & bass music unit “Chaos Royale”, which is well-known in the Tokyo underground for their impossibly heavy sound and for physical performances combining poledancers, arial acrobatics, fire, and tribal fusion dance. Due to a shared interest in retro-futurism, in early 2012 he founded time-travel themed entertainment think tank “Tokyo Inventors Society” with Kenny Creation.

Ay-leen: Welcome to Beyond Victoriana! From your bios, I see that both of you are quite accomplished artists. So how did you two meet?

Kenny: We are both musicians. Our mutual friend invited me a party. It was my first time to see Luke’s performance. It was awesome. At that time I think I was wearing some kind of classy outfit and talked about steampunk to him. He recommended me several books.

Luke: Yes, if I remember rightly we met backstage at one of my gigs (with my group Chaos Royale). Someone said, “Hey, this is Kenny,” and I noticed he had a pocket watch and a bunch of cool retro-looking accessories, so I asked him “Are you into steampunk at all?”

He replied “Of course! But nobody in Japan knows steampunk!!” Right away we hit it off.

I remember recommending Michael Moorcock’s work and some other stuff, which isn’t available in Japan so he’d never seen it before. Most people don’t bother to follow-up on something like that, but he stayed in touch and it was apparent quite early that we had some ideas in common.

Ay-leen: I’m glad that the connection was instant – steampunks always know how to find it each, it seems… ^^ How did the both of you become interested in steampunk?

Kenny: It was natural for me because I am a mechanical engineer. I’m always interested to make things. I always wonder, “How does this work?” Also, I like to see classical dress and the imagination of the “19th Century.” When I went to Germany, I also saw a lot of steampunks and I recognized “this is like I imagined!” So I got into wearing more of the style and bringing a steampunk sense into my life.

Luke: I was (and still am) a huge fan of Michael Moorcock’s satirical counterculture fantasies from the 60’s and 70’s. His Oswald Bastable books are now rightly seen as hugely influential on modern steampunk but back in the day he had a really unique sensibility. I also love 19th and early 20th century classical music, Victorian engineering and architecture and so on. The rising interest in steampunk has been a lucky coincidence and has fed back into my interests. The new generation of metalcraft and mechanical artisans reviving beautiful handcraft and applying it to technology instead of making everything out of stamped plastic is inspiring to behold.

Kenny: The inspiration for starting “Steam Garden” was simply that here in Japan there were no steampunk events or this kind of culture before. So I decided to make it myself.

Then my mate Luke helped me a lot. He’s British, he’s more of a huge fan of 19th century movements than me, after all, he’s from the country that started the industrial revolution 🙂

Luke: The pivotal moment in Steam Garden’s history was in our local hookah bar. We were just chilling out with some drinks and water pipes and probably complaining about the moribund state of the Tokyo club scene. We floated some cool, if drunken, ideas for the future, and went home and forgot most of it. At least I thought we did, but a month later I got a call from Kenny saying, “OK I’ve booked the place, can you help me with a few of those things we talked about?” So we started with Kenny organizing and me in a support role, but very soon the workload for both of us was really high. We quickly noticed that we could work together well, so we decided on a 50/50 partnership.

Ay-leen: Kenny, when did you travel to Germany? Do you remember the moment (or moments) where you saw steampunks there and thought, “This is what I’ve been waiting for!!”

Kenny: Leipzig, Germany. I went to an event called “Wave Gotik Treffen,” the hugest alternative music and fashion party in Europe. Tons of travellers come every year for this (some Japanese magazines go and make reports on it too). It isn’t only for steampunk fashion, but as you know it’s in Europe so they known how to do gorgeous 19th C outfits and steam gadget fusion.

Ay-leen: I’m interested in the fact that you mention not seeing much in the way of Japanese steampunk subculture before you got involved creating the Tokyo Inventor Society. Japanese pop culture has a lot of technofantasy elements to it. Have you considered other media/ pop culture things as examples of as sources of inspiration for Japanese steampunk before you became involved in the scene?

Kenny: As for Japanese steampunk. that’s a tough one. Okay, these are not direct inspiration for Steam garden, but I should say examples of influences on “Japanese Steampunk” are—

[Note from Ay-leen: I added in the English translation when necessary and links to the titles Kenny recs]

Tenkuu no Shiro no Laputa” 天空の城ラピュタ[Castle in the Sky] (19th Century Europe setting, an “industrial” setting, airships, adventure in the sky)

Kurenai no Buta” 紅の豚 [Porco Rosso] (story of the retired legendary pilot)

Sakura Taisen” サクラ大戦 [Sakura Wars] (Mix of Victorian and gorgeous kimono, the characters fight using robots, Time line is Meiji and Taisho era)

K-20” 怪人20面相 (the story is similar to Mask of Zorro, showa era tokyo, but an alternative history: as if there was no WW2)

FullMetal Alchemist” 鋼の錬金術師 (combined fantasy + industrial adventure)

Steam Boy” スチームボーイ(inventors story with steam-gadgets)

Ay-leen: I think you won me over by mentioning FMA. That is one of my favorite animes, ever!

Luke: Obviously “Laputa.” If anyone hasn’t watched it, do so immediately! I saw a subtitled bootleg around 1995 or thereabouts: I’d heard Miyazaki was an animation genius but I was expecting it to be some kind of gentle story for kids. When I saw it I couldn’t believe how cool his mechanical designs were, and much overlap there was between his imaginary world and the so-called “steampunk” genre which was still almost entirely confined to literature at that time. I wish I could ask him how much, if any, proto-steampunk literature he had been reading or if it was serendipity. He certainly knows his aviation history, which informs his designs and animation.

I’ll come clean and say I have generally little clue about games or anime. I’ve never played Sakura Taisen even though the Meiji setting is very similar to our fundamental concept for “Steam Garden”.

Recently I’ve seen some bits of games or other pop culture in Japan which seem to be half-assedly aiming for “steampunk” but don’t have anything in common with it beyond purely visual gimmicks. They add cogs for no apparent reason or feature “steam” somehow. That is completely missing the point.

Ay-leen: I see that the trend of people latching onto the aesthetics and not going any deeper is something that steampunks globally notice as the steampunk movement becomes more recognizable. Which is why I think Steam Garden is so impressive, because you guys like to explore steampunk as more than just a look, but a creative mindset. So, how did you find the other members of your crew?

Kenny: We have lots of friends in fashion, art, design etc, plus we met some talented people who attended SteamGarden episode 1 who liked the event and were very into steampunk. I think something about sharing an interest brings people together, it’s kind of fate.

Tokyo Inventors Society crew members (left to right) Fiona, Misa, Luke & Kenny, hanging out at "Wonder Festival" in Chiba.

Tokyo Inventors Society crew members (left to right) Fiona, Misa, Luke & Kenny, hanging out at “Wonder Festival” in Chiba.

Ay-leen: Now, you’ve conducted SteamGarden as a seasonal event, and from your website, I see that it has an on-going storyline. I wish I could attend, because I’m really curious how much the storytelling / LARPing aspect places into your event.

Luke: Right from the first Steam Garden, we wanted the music, fashion shows and so on, to express a definite concept every time, not just “generic” steampunk. Most of us are musicians, or dancers, or actors, or stunt performers and so on. So creating a character on stage or on film is a natural part of what we do. It’s a natural match, hence the idea of Steam Garden being “episodes” in a story rather than simply a regular event with various performances. The idea of travelling through time and around the world also means our audience never knows quite what to expect: I hope it’s always exciting.

Ay-leen: Since Japan has such a big cosplay subculture, how much do you think that impacts what the Japanese steampunk community is like? Or, on the other hand, how much do you think the steampunk community defines itself outside of your local cosplay or costume subcultures?

Luke: There isn’t really a large steampunk community in Japan yet!

Kenny: No, much too minor still! And I think most cosplayers don’t know about steampunk yet- but maybe it will change soon.

Luke: Neither of us is an expert on cosplay, but we’ve noticed a few people at Steam Garden who made their own complex parts for costumes and gadgets. I’d guess some of them are cosplayers. It’s great if they can get into this culture via their hobby and then get exposed to the literature, fashion, performances and so on. Also, our team recently attended “Wonder Festival,” a big hobby show which attracts lots of cosplayers. Some of them seemed very interested in our fashion but they didn’t seem to understand what it was. However, I bumped into an old friend called Omi Gibson who is a well-known cosplayer (I think she is quite famous outside of Japan?). She knew about steampunk pretty well, so I’d be interested to see her take on it, because she always looks amazing.

Ay-leen: That’s fascinating that the cosplay culture is slow to pick up on Steampunk. When I go to anime conventions here in the United States, even back in 2009 there had been a huge outpouring of steampunks at major anime conventions like Anime Boston.

But the “episodic” format of your events seems to have a common link to other steampunk events I’ve seen in the States. Why do you think this concept of story-telling is so important in steampunk creative works? Is it just linked to its literature roots or something more…?

Kenny: I think most sci-fi things have a back bone, from books and surrounding culture. This kind of “story” makes it easy to focus the imagination and build up an alternative history by oneself. The point is not to imitate what someone has already done. Many people found great inspiration from the influential artwork of the past, but you can create your own story in the steampunk world.

Luke: That’s a great question and I think you’ve hit upon a deeper significance than you realize when you say, “Is it just linked to its literature roots?”

Steampunk -the modern form of it- has lasted over 20 years now, and I think that the human desire to tell stories and exercise the imagination is right at the heart of it.

Ay-leen: Since so many artists from all background seem attracted to steampunk, do you think people consider it more of an art movement and not just a hobby?

Luke: I think you’ve answered your own question!

Kenny: It depends. Honestly, I don’t want to categorize whether it is just a hobby or an art movement.

Luke: I think it’s important that people understand you don’t have to be “a steampunk.” Don’t limit it to some pre-packaged marketing genre nonsense.

Ay-leen: Do you think the community has any common ideas about what it “means to be steampunk?” Debates about whether steampunk has an ideology are always very intense in the communities I frequent…

Kenny: The common ideology has roots in the industrial revolution…but…

Luke: I’m going to jump in and get very serious for a second now, haha. I feel that it shouldn’t be reduced to purely visual elements. The alternative look at history, technology or cultural mores is important. Don’t lose sight of the satirical element, for example the biggest influences on the genre explicitly satirize imperialism and “good old-fashioned morals” and so on.

Also, don’t spend your time arguing about the meanings of words. What I mean is, saying “this book is quite steampunk,” or “that’s a steampunk-looking watch,” and have someone basically understand you, is useful, even if the book does not conform 100% to your idea of steampunk. What isn’t useful is dividing things up into ever-more specific “genres” that only make sense to the 5 people who like that genre.

Honestly, Wikipedia’s first paragraph of their “Steampunk” article is actually pretty good, and beyond that I think we are splitting hairs.

To relate this to our work as “Tokyo Inventors Society” – we don’t wake up each day and ask ourselves, “Are we steampunk?” we wake up each day and think: “Let’s do a fashion show with that cool designer, let’s introduce people to this fantastic magician, let’s do a party which takes a sideways look at the Taisho period,” or whatever.

Kenny: This is why he’s the “philosopher” hahaha.

Ay-leen: Luke, I totally co-sign with all of your thoughts about how steampunk emphasizes creative action, and certainly lean toward more umbrella definitions than squabbling over specifics. Still, the academic in me can’t help but be fascinated by how communities create identities. ^^

Speaking about highlighting artists, though, are these any Japanese steampunk artists, musicians, makers, etc that you wish had more attention in the global steampunk community? I can think of Haruo Suekichi’s watches and the steampunk band Strange Artifact as examples…

Kenny: As far as designers and makers go, we have plenty of talented friends we feature at Steam Garden.

Luke: …people like the watch-makers AStory in Harajuku who make amazingly intricate brass items, with typically excellent Japanese craftsmanship.

Kenny: “Kamaty Moon” might appeal to overseas fans? He makes cute but very detailed fantasy animal figures with all kinds of steampunk type gadgets.

Luke: We originally met him at Design Festa and apparently he liked our fashion so much he started dressing all steampunky!

Ay-leen: Whoa, thanks for the recs! I’m sure readers would enjoy looking more into what Japanese steampunk creators have to offer (and I want one of those AStory watches!) Where do you hope for the Japanese steampunk community in the coming years? Are there any greater goals that you yourselves as the organizers of SteamGarden have in particular?

Kenny: Our goal is to bring steampunk ideas into Japanese culture, synthesize something new, and then spread a new international Steampunk culture. Reconstructing the style of steampunk is an infinite, completely new challenge we are facing!

Luke: Absolutely. We want to take “SteamGarden” overseas, introduce people all around the world to our wonderfully cosmopolitan “Meiji era steampunk” show. We’d like to organize things like the Comic-Con steampunk after-party, I think we’d make a good job of that.

Ay-leen: Hey, if you ever decide to go to San Diego Comic-Con, I can get you connected with the steampunks there… And this year, SteamCon and TeslaCon both have international-friendly themes. Just saying. ^~

Is there anything else you’d like to give a shout-out to the greater steampunk community about?

Luke: Thanks a lot to you for showcasing alternative history and retro-future ideas beyond Eurocentric neo-Victorian. I love my Sherlock Holmes as much as anyone, but I also want to see Persian, Ethiopian, Mexican and Mongolian steampunk!

Kenny: And everyone who’s interested in our activities, we hope to see you on the airship one day!

Ay-leen: And thank you again, Luke & Kenny, for stopping in. Readers can check out more information on the Official Tokyo Steampunk Society on Facebook, their website TokyoSteampunk. And, of course, for the curious, the details of Steam Garden are below.

***
“Steam Garden episode 4: Celtic Fantasy” will take place at the huge and gorgeous Christon Cafe in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Starting at 12:00 noon on Sunday March 10th.
3000 yen entry at the door, or 5000 yen including the “medieval lunch” course.

Performances by:
Kaori Kawabuchi (motion & stunt artist for Final Fantasy 13)
Homonculus (medieval music on a variety of bizarre instruments)
Firedancer Lyon VS Chaos Royale (tribal fusion, fire spirit summoning performance and heavy beats)

Gramaphone operators (DJ’s):
Kenny Creation (celtic)
Misa (epic)
Nemo (heavy classical)
Ray Trak (neo swing)

+ “Steam market” & “Celtic village” area featuring many booths from designers, creators and artists.

The tickets are also good for the after-party which will continue upstairs featuring more celtic and epic music DJs, plus other surprises.

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