Lunatic Park

It stands encased in glass separated from the people, but it is there in the room with us. Its ever-glowing presence fills everyone’s heart with wonderment and fun, beauty and intrigue; distrust and regret, ugliness and fear. The bright yellow synthetics, the glass portal, the black tubes and cones, fixtures and fittings, wires and lights. The oxygen tanks, the Geiger counters, the latex boots and gloves. It stands in front of us like something from a sci-fi movie, or a really strange scuba outfit, or some nutter overdoing it at a rave. The radiation labels and warnings set it all into proper perspective, and immediately questions pop into the back of yer mind: How lonely will it be? What life after the apocalypse is gonna be worth living? How comfortable will living sheathed in latex, glass, steel, and Geigers be? How the hell are we gonna go the bathroom living in the ATOM SUIT???

The Kirin Plaza is the perfect place for something cool. It is right on Dotonbori across the street from the pornographic Haagen-Dasz, in the middle of the massive industrial post-modern city of Osaka. The building itself is covered in shiny glasses, abstract blocks, and chrome balls making it look like some sort of alien tower.

How do you view the future after the apocalypse? My outlook is bleak. I see rust. I see desert. I see scarcity and shit. Mad Max paints a good image, or South Carolina, but I see a land where things ain’t pretty.

Then there is Kenji Yanobe’s view. His view is both disastrous and playful at the same time. How does that work? How can you combine carnage and destruction with fun and wholesome goodness and make people buy it?


To give it a brief run over, the view Kenji presents includes rust, and destruction, and sand and desert, and sealed tank life, and latex-sheathed breathing. His is a view where man will have no physical contact with the outside world, unless we’re completely covered to avoid radiation burns. Everything will be desolate, like a new world frontier, everything will be high tech and utilitarian: functioning merely to sustain life. But somehow, it will all be playful and cute, which makes you wonder, “Is any of this real, or am I being sucked into the strobing, pigmented world of Japanimation?” No matter how bleak and shitty and lonely this world will look, you know there’ll be a ho-down kickin’ somewhere. At least that’s the feeling Kenji presents in his show. Everything is sleek, cool, refined, bright, and fun. The Atom Suit looks like a club kid’s wet dream, with its latex and metal and post-modern scuba gear. The fallout shelter that will become our home seems like a really fun place to “live” and to love – Kenji shares his with a prehistoric cat fish that he says can be used to “predict the coming of an earthquake, and can be used for food in case of an emergency.” The “Atom Car” that we’ll use to travel long distances is cuter then a VW Bug, a Vespa Scooter, and personal submarine all combined into one slick 3-wheeled ride. Even the Geiger counters all over the place are shiny and bright with pretty chrome fixtures and lights. And the atomic logo for Lunatic Park is pasted everywhere there’s some extra space, to remind us it’s not an Insane Asylum, but a playground for the mentally bent. Surely we’ll all be bent by then.

Not that I’m implying Kenji Yanobe is mentally split, but he is definitely eccentric. He is also definitely a BAD ASS. Anyone who has the vision and the know-how to create a gigantic pair of realistic looking robotic Godzilla feet that you can sit in and drive (“Foot Soldier,” 1991), crushing all in your path, is a genius in my thesaurus. But Godzilla’s toe jam was an installment at another show; Kenji now presents his view of a post-apocalyptic world, and has brought to life images and ideas from his childhood and the birth of a bubbling technology that Japan has mass produced so fluently.

Back in the day, a lot of babies started to mutter their first words, and after “mama” and “papa” came the word, “ATOM.” Although this may not have been that unusual for a child born in post-bomb 1950’s Japan, it is pretty bizarre. Surprisingly, these were not Kenji’s first words, but he did realize at a young age that he had a fascination for the future and all things “atom.” Born in 1965, Kenji’s atomic fascination was easily fueled by Japan’s status as world leaders in modern doodadgetry and the pop culture of his day (which is still very much alive today). Growing up in post-war Japan was a time for children to get attacked by an onslaught of futuristic comics, shows, and toys. Kenji was enthralled with these poppy views of the future, and became a big fan of a butt-load of manga and Japanime, especially “Atom Boy” (half-naked robotic wonderboy in latex hot pants), “Godzilla” (world’s most eligible lizard bachelor – or is that bachelorette?), and other characters. He also got a charge out of the genesis of the new modern Japan, filled with technology to bring us into the post-atomic age. The most intriguing details from Kenji’s past are his memories of visiting the [World?] Expo in Osaka in 1970 which featured mass quantities of robots and showed how we humans would be able to use them and get along. This left a mark on him, and after the show’s closing, he used to run around and play in the discarded wasteland left behind. Instead of using the robots and machines that would save the world, they were left to rot, like a lot of things in Japan are. Kenji vividly remembers playing among the corroding shells of technology, robots, and buildings all abandoned and left to die. The image of his inner child playing in this futuristic wasteland was alive at the show as we looked at photos of the grown Kenji decked out in his very own ATOM SUIT, posing all over the world, all over the wasteland, all over the future.

The first part of the exhibit is a series of photos taken by Russel Liebman. These shots feature Kenji in one of his many late model Atom Suits in various poses and locations across the world. We see several shots from Chernobyl, where the suit sits in the rubble of a tetanus farm of rusting tanks and helicopters, in front of a decrepit Ferris wheel, a train station, a smithereened daycare, surrounded by present day soldiers and children, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, in the setting sun, in the desert. Every location is mesmerizing and somewhat depressing at the same time, except for the bright and beautiful latex of the atom suit making things a little bit more cheery for the viewer. Mixed in with the photos, is a large collection of sketches that look like instructions from a Battletech model.


A large blue bust of the Atom Suit stands on a platform with gigantic antennae (not unlike THE TICK) sticking out of its head. The antennae are actually the reels from a super 8 camera playback and after paying one hundred yen, you stick your face into the mask and you are in the “Last Film Theater” watching a clip of the Atom Suit walkin’ around as the theme song “Duck and Cover,” from some old American fallout propaganda, plays.

The coolest part of the exhibit is at the end. It is here that the patron is invited to get a real taste of life after falling out. A room is set up with a massive theater screen playing a loop of the “Duck and Cover” propaganda film and lengthy shots of people checking radiation readings while wearing their own Atom Suits. Strobe lights flare and techno blares as some cat does a little dance in his suit before wandering with his brothers in the desert and watching time elapsed sunsets. Underneath this screen on the floor, for the low price of three hundred yen (which you had to insert into a slot, like a video game), you get to drive your very own Atom Car! That’s right, these one-manned bastards are open for public destruction. Seat yourself down, have a friend seal the plastic hatch over your head, insert your yennies and the car lights up. Geiger counters start monitoring the radiation levels outside and you’re OFF driving around the room. It is totally hilarious, and the best piece of interactive art I’ve ever experienced.


One of things you have to avoid hitting while driving the car is Kenji’s impressive atomic fallout shelter. Somehow, they were able to fit this massive capsule into the gallery. It resembles a bright orange submarine, but is actually a real live fallout shelter. Kenji decked it out with some spare atom suits and tons of toys to help you pass the time. Everything you’d need for living was there including reels of cartoons, cooking equipment, food and snacks, condoms, radios, even the earthquake sensitive catfish.

Yanobe received an MA from Kyoto City University of the Arts, but he got no inspiration from the classical European masters he was forced to study in school. Instead, he focused his attention on what he knew best: the media-radiation he grew up on. Why try to sketch like Rembrandt when you can already sketch Astro Boy perfectly? Why try to sculpt like Degas when you can build feet like Godzilla’s? And why try to design like Da Vinci when you can construct your very own atomic fallout suit and shelter? And it is really cool when you consider that he is taken something found only in the mediums of video, film, papers, and toys, and made it three dimensional, physical, life sized and semi-functional.

While there may be no Euro trash connection to his art, Kenji has definitely borrowed some of the cute, fun, and light-hearted elements of fallout. Of course there’s the fantasy and freshness taken from the manga and japanime, but there is also the prevailing mood that “it won’t be so bad” often found in classic propaganda from the US in the 1950s and early ’60s. “At first glance this all might look cute and visually playful, but inside it is very frightening and unknown,” warns Kenji.

Kenji says that his art is serious. It has a purpose. A series of radiation slip-ups inspired his initial attempts at building the Atom Suit in the early ’90s. He claims that his work is being produced to protect himself and his family (including his dog, who has his own Atom Suit) from radiation. Whether these things stand a chance in a radioactive bowl of soup, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d last too long. But Kenji doesn’t worry about this and seriously states that “The Atom Car cannot run after ten units of radiation are released into the atmosphere…unless we pay it to run.”


And paying for things is a big part of Lunatic Park. I’m not sure how I feel about the ethics behind art that makes you pay money, but it definitely makes for swanky capitalism. “Last Film Theater” costs a mere hundred yen to run. Then the “Atom Car” costs three hundred to drive. And exiting the show is “Gachapon”, a super cool version of the machines you see outside supermarkets, which costs two hundred yen to “play,” but is totally worth is since you get your very own piece of Lunatic Park gear to take home (inside were mini Atom Suits and Atom Cars, radios, bibles, and many other fine Lunatic Park brand name items). The costs begin to add up.

But it is a small price to pay considering the visions we’re allowed to see. The price mankind will pay once the atomic apocalypse comes will be worse then any supermarket slot machine can rack up. It is crazy to think that Kenji’s fantasy world could have been a reality today. Perhaps this is something we need to think about more often in fact. With the recent enthusiasm for nuclear development by disgruntled nations, the visions Kenji conjures might simply be foreshadowing for a not-so-distant future. It’s a scary thought, but one that most people don’t bother themselves with these days. But Kenji has, and through Lunatic Park he gets to bring to life the fantastic media and toys and visions he had as a child; he gets to show us his outlook after Japan’s recent Y2K parachute pants craze, he gets to act a social servant reminding us that it is not too late to save the world. And there is nothing crazy about that.

SPECIAL THANKS TO: NOBUYOSHI NAGAOKA for translation frustration adulation.

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