Rugrats in Retrospect: A Response to Saberspark's Video 'What RUINED Rugrats - The Untold Drama' and Why Paul Germain was Spot on about Good Storytelling
In the 1990's, animation was starting to evolve from toy commercial centric cartoons like Care Bears and My Little Pony to creator driven content as seen with Nickelodeon's hit shows of the time like Doug, Rocko's Modern Life and Nick's then pop cultural phenomenon, Rugrats. At the start of the decade, media and technology entrepreneur, Geraldine Laybourne served as Nickelodeon's first president from 1984 to 1996. She and the rest of the team set out to make Nickelodeon the first network for kids with their unique line-up of shows that were original creator content in order to differentiate themselves from other networks during those years. At the beginning, Doug, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Rugrats were the first three animated shows to be greenlit into production. Of the three, Rugrats would go on to be Nickelodeon's biggest hit, paving the way for the network's upcoming animated shows like Rocko's Modern Life, Angry Beavers and Hey Arnold!. More to the point, Rugrats became the face of Nickelodeon throughout most of the '90's, but then in the latter part of the decade and the start of the 2000's, its popularity gradually began to die down, eventually being eclipsed by Sponge Bob Square Pants.
There is a very specific reason as to why that happened. However, contrary to popular belief, the decline in popularity for Rugrats wasn't so much for the addition of new characters, though, there is some merit to that assumption. The real problem that caused this series to lose its momentum, as seen in Saberspark's video, What RUINED Rugrats? - The Untold Drama, had everything to do with the show creators failing to see eye to eye. The show was created by then married couple, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Cspuo along with fellow co-worker, Paul Germain. In this blog post, I'm not going to delve too much into the notorious drama that went on amongst the writers. I'm just going to pin point the main source of it. Rather, I'm going to discuss my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of an aspiring writer and early childhood teacher. Using my animation and illustration background as well as my experience so far working with children, I will explain with an in-depth analysis on why I favor Mr. Germain's side of the story.
For starters, before Rugrats made its debut, the trio worked on a few episodes of The Simpsons shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989 before it made its debut as a television series itself on December 17th, 1989. The Klasky-Csupo team worked on this series during the first three seasons. The Simpsons, which was created by Matt Groening, has been a pop cultural icon for nearly three decades now, and is still going strong to this day, making it the longest running American animated sitcom in history. As we know, the show deals with the titular dysfunctional family and their interactions and responses toward American culture. As simple a concept that may be, what contributes a great deal to the success of The Simpsons is character development and stories that explore the human condition by going into the characters' minds and challenges. Having previously worked on the show, Paul Germain knew that the key to making a top tier animated series was quality storytelling, so his level of expertise would bode well for him in the long run. (I know The Simpsons did suffer a bit in quality over the years, but that's another topic for another day).
When pitching a show for Nickelodeon, Arlene Klasky created the concept for Rugrats with one basic idea in mind that made it truly memorable: "if babies could talk, what would they say?" Having been pregnant during the show's conception, making this a very personal show that was important to her, she had Paul Germain help her elaborate on the idea. Inevitably, Nickelodeon greenlighted production on the series and a total of sixty-five episodes would be in the contract. Rugrats debuted in the summer of 1991. Due to solid promotion, its success and viewership increased immensely. From films, to merchandise, and even a giant parade balloon making its debut in the 1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was no denying Rugrats became the crown jewel for Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, as Saberspark pointed out, the events building up towards the show's success was ultimately what lead the show to crumble. There were several feuds between Klasky and Germain that would often put Csupo in the middle as the swing voter between the two.
Long story short, Arlene Klasky favored the idea of the baby characters acting more like their age rather than see them acting on adult-like behaviors as seen in the 1992 episode, The Trial in which the babies have a courtroom setup after one of the children destroys Tommy's favorite lamp. Paul Germain was all for writing plot driven narratives with solid character development like that of The Simpsons, but for kids. To make this disconnect between the show creators worse, it was the introduction of Angelica that increased conflict between Klasky and Germain. Germain created Angelica, feeling that the show having an antagonist would tip the scales in its favor. Klasky, having not created the character, strongly disliked Angelica and often complained about her portrayal being too cruel towards the younger children. Inspired by a childhood bully, Germain wanted to explore Angelica's character and craft character driven plots examining why some kids who bully other kids behave the way they do. After Paul Germain's departure in the mid-1990's along with other members of the writing staff, the quality of the writing began to shift. Although that was the time Rugrats skyrocketed in success, a few years later, it began to fizzle and eventually the show ended in 2004. Given all that was happening behind the scenes with this show and in regards to good writing and how children learn and develop through cooperative and explorative play, Paul Germain was definitely on-point when it came to what would have been best for this kind of series.
First of all, since Rugrats is a cartoon about children from ages one to three and a half years old, it should delve into topics that focus on the inner workings of early childhood development. The key ingredient that goes into good writing is having a deep understanding of your subject matter and drawing even more inspiration from the real world. It could be from personal experience, people you know or some new insights you've garnered working with others. All of those elements are vital to good storytelling, if not an important foundation for it. Arlene Klasky was right about one thing. When coming up with an idea for a story, it's a good idea to write something that is personal to you, but her unwillingness to listen to her peers left almost no room for personal growth. Good ideas become stronger when you garner deeper understandings of what you're writing about. If Klasky wanted to make a show that was about babies exploring the world around them, she'd be wiser to take those concepts into account. With Paul Germain's approach to writing, he was willing to add and explore those aspects of early childhood development blended with personal experiences and incorporate them into the plots. For example, when the children mimic adult behaviors, that's a prime example in early childhood development with children letting themselves think freely in a risk-free environment. What contributes to children's growth is their freedom to explore certain attributes of adult behaviors and thus, begin to learn about themselves and how the world works. As is the case with The Trial episode, the babies have a courtroom setting in the living room because they have already seen and know that adults attend jury duty. They are somewhat familiar with how that process works. Certainly they may not understand every little detail that there is to know, but at an early age, children observe adults on one side of a testimony and others representing the other perspective in order to determine who might be guilty and who might be innocent.
To add to this, from my experience so far working with preschoolers and what I've been studying, I've seen how children play certain games like house, kitchen, or store. Social referencing is something that occurs in infants between six to nine months, which is when babies observe how their caregivers react to certain situations and use that as a model for the appropriate response. Preschoolers already know this social cue from their infancy and build up from it. In terms of childhood development theories, Lev Vygotsky theorized that social interaction among other children is what adds to the child making meaning and gaining new knowledge. He also believed that, unlike Jean Piaget, who categorized childhood development in four stages, children's development is continuous and occurs through cooperative learning. Children, thus learn from each other. Jerome Bruner's Three Modes of Representation observes that children continuously and actively learn by adding on previous knowledge. Enactive, which is based inaction occurs during the early years. Iconic, which is image based, occurs during the mid-childhood years. Symbolic, which is rooted in language, takes place during adolescence. Applying this to The Trail, we see these examples playing out in the episode. We see that the children in the cartoon already understand why adults resolve disputes in a courtroom, so there is a bit of social referencing displayed as the babies are seen referencing adult behaviors to respond to their situation. The way that the Lev Vygotsky theory is depicted, the children are interacting with one another and thus, through this type of play, they are learning through cooperation and making meaning in order to find out who broke the lamp. The way that Bruner's theory plays a role is that at the age that the Rugrats characters are, they are learning through action or Enactive imagery and that is knowledge that gets built on with new knowledge over time.
That being said, drawing from real-life examples and knowledge of how children develop are important elements that contribute to good writing. The topic or subject matter you are writing about may be personal to you, but if you don't take the time to build up a deeper understanding from other perspectives and real-life observations, your concept may still be good on paper, but stale in representation. This also leads me to another reason why Germain's approach to storytelling excels over Klasky's, one that should always be at the forefront when crafting a story: who is your target audience? This question may already be a matter of common sense, but its one that seems to get a bit lost as new writers join a team on a show or other type of creative project. As mentioned earlier, Paul Germain envisioned Rugrats being The Simpsons of children's television. What he meant was that the target demographic for Rugrats could appeal to not only children, but adults as well. Just because of the age of the main characters, it shouldn't imply that there can't be stories written in a way that would resonate with older audiences as well. From the sound of the debates between Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain, it was obvious that Klasky failed to understand her audience, much less ever listen to why Germain's writing team was on point. Klasky felt that if they were to make a show about babies, it automatically meant that the main characters should consistently do what babies do. However, there is a major flaw in this thought process: aside from it leaving very little room for character development, it leaves very little room certain topics to be covered, rendering the show's content too stale.
The main problem I see with Klasky's approach as to what she thought was right for Rugrats is that she wanted to play the show too safe. Audiences eventually get bored of that. They can easily tell when writers are taking creative risks and when they are selling themselves short. By having the main characters constantly act their ages, not only are there limitations on story and character growth, but it fails to resonate with audiences. If Rugrats was intended to be a show both kids and adults could relate to, this approach was absolutely not the ideal choice for that demographic. You can't just have one foot in the door for a certain age group and the other one stepping out for another. A good kids show written for both kids and adults in mind should always be an open space for writers to be adventurous and explorative when it comes to dealing with new ideas. Plus this is the type of audience that wants to see something beyond the comfort level. There have been episodes of Rugrats, like the PBS Kids edutainment show, Arthur, where difficult topics were covered, such as neglect, loss of a pet or family member, jealousy, generational differences and of course, child growth and developmental milestones. There have even been episodes that deal with fears adults struggle with and new experiences that come with each stage in life. Even most impressive was that there have been holiday specials that focus on Hanukah and Passover and their religious significance, something that not very many shows at the time were covering. Being open to topics like these make room for both kids and adults to have a dialogue with one another. Because early childhood development is the seed that shapes how we grow up as our earliest experiences shape us, our perception of others and the world around us, it makes more sense that character driven plots were the best way to construct an episode of a show like Rugrats. Playing it safe with very little for the characters to do eventually alienates viewers and thus, that is why Paul Germain had the right idea all along. Even so, when it came to Angelica, her role wasn't solely to be a one-dimensional bully as mentioned earlier, but rather to represent a figure of the type of kid everyone has to deal with at times. As children grow up, they will always encounter a bully. Contrary to some of the stereotypes portraying bully characters over the years prior to Rugrats and other shows afterwards, there are underlying reasons why some children lash out the way they do. Over simplifying or dodging the subject altogether is not only playing storytelling safely, but it's also denying the reality of the world we live in. (I would like to delve into the topic of bully/brat characters in kids shows in a separate blog post sometime because I think it's a topic deserving of its own post).
With all that has been said and done and how well Rugrats aged as a pop cultural icon, in the end, it was Paul Germain's values as a storyteller that made it stand the test of time. With all due respect to Arlene Klasky, who undeniably had a brilliant idea for a television show, her concepts sounded good on paper, but Germain had ideas to help take her concept up another step further. It was unfortunate that Klasky and Germain failed to find common ground, but one can't deny that it's one thing to have a good idea on your hands. It's a whole world of difference to build up on it. Going off of Klasky's approach, there would have left very little room for character development and growth due to limitations on plotlines as was the case with the later seasons. Germain had all the right pieces in mind that fit into crafting good stories that would resonate with the show's respective audience. With an understanding of real world examples, such as studies related to the subject matter that the series centers around and personal experiences along with comprehending who the show is for, those are all important factors that contributes to both a show's quality and increased level of success in the long run. Stories can teach us about our struggles and shed them in a different light when delved into correctly, inspiring viewers to ask themselves the right questions and reflect on their own situations. By playing it safe and shunning other suggestions to further improve your concept as well as knowing less about who your target audience is, you not only put limitations on the potential of your ideas, but also on yourself as a writer. The more explorative you become with your concept and how it relates to the real world along with knowing what kind of stories your audiences are hoping to see, the better rounded you become as a creator. Your concept will grow and flourish, reaching its full potential. As with any creative medium, it will always be a continuing process that no one ever stops learning from because our experiences never stop shaping us and endless knowledge is always being spread around. You yourself will never stop learning. It's either you're open to it or you just stick to what is already familiar to you. By the latter, you will have many missed opportunities. By the former, you will constantly be exposed to them and those new opportunities and insights are what you give your audiences in return.
Marc Brown, who is known primarily as the author of the Arthur children's books series, is a three-time Emmy award winner behind the PBS Kids TV series of the same name. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania along with his three sisters, he grew up listening to his Grandma Thora's stories, which eventually inspired him to come up with and write his own stories as he got older. Aside from sparking his interest in writing, Thora also sparked his interest in drawing. Marc began using watercolors in high school after his teacher introduced him to the medium, which he continues to use in most of his illustrative works. Among his influences are Cubist artist Marc Chagall and fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak of the Where the Wild Things Are fame. Marc majored in graphic design at the Cleveland Institute of Art after receiving help from Grandma Thora. Since then, Marc Brown pursued children's books even while taking up other jobs before pursuing the career path officially.
To this day, Arthur continues to air, becoming the longest running children's animated series in the United States and the second longest running animated show behind The Simpsons. The television series made its debut on October 7th, 1996, two decades after the first Arthur book, Arthur's Nose was published. Both the books and the television series center around the everyday life and challenges of the titular character, who is an 8-year old anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family. The topics of the books deal with issues and challenges children face such as trying new things, first days of school, effort and success and working together with peers. In the television series, there are episodes that cover difficult issues families struggle with such as autism, cancer, dyslexia, Alzheimer's, death of a pet, Asperger's syndrome and coping after a devastating event.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marc Brown back in 2014 at a talk he was giving at the Boston Public Library. The lecture was a part of the Gateway to Reading Lowell Lecture Series. Marc discussed what inspired him to become a children's book author as well as his creative process, how the people he went to school with when he was in third grade and family members inspired the characters in the Arthur books, other books he was working on and other authors he worked with. When on the topic of how Arthur became a TV show, he cited the late Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) as his main influence. PBS wanted to make a television show based on the Arthur books as a means to encourage children to read. Marc recalls "what PBS wanted to do with Arthur was to make more kids want to read by watching television. I thought that was a wonderful use of both animation and TV. And the best role model was my buddy Fred Rogers, who I think used television in such helpful ways to kids and families. I miss him a lot." Marc then goes on to show the audience some clips from the animated series. "We did a lot of shows, things that you couldn't do in a picture book as well. Like a lot of families, including ours have dealt with the problem of Alzheimer's and Arthur's having some problems with his Grandpa." The first clip shown is from the episode, Grandpa Dave's Memory Album, featuring late comedian and actress Joan Rivers in a special guest appearance followed by another clip from the episode, The Great MacGrady, which dealt with the topic of cancer. Marc then goes on to show more clips from the animated series featuring other guest appearances including Larry King, Matt Damon, Neil Gaiman, Ming Tsai the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Fincke, Michelle Kwan, the late Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Frank Gehry, Yo-Yo and of course, Fred Rogers. After the montage of clips, Marc talks about his experiences meeting four presidents after writing the book, Arthur Meets the President and shares some fun and humorous anecdotes from his travels. He then talks about a book he illustrated, titled Wild About Books, written by fellow children's book author, Judy Sierra. The writing style in Wild About Books pays homage to Dr. Seuss, who is known for famous titles such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax. Marc shows the audience his illustrations as he narrates the book and concludes the lecture by saying "if I ran the zoo, all the teachers would make more money than movie stars because what they do is a lot more important. Think about that".
After the lecture, there is the question time taking place, starting with the kids and then the rest of the audience. When my turn comes up, (timestamp 48:16), I ask about how does the team go about the difficult topics covered in the show. Marc's response goes as follows:
"Well, I'm glad that you are interested in that because...it's kind of a detail that a lot of people don't know about. Because we deal with so many issues that are difficult, most people don't want to deal with those [topics] with kids. We have a wonderful advisory group and we go to people who are specialists in those fields. We talked with a lot of people who know about cancer and they know about families..., dealing with that and how to be helpful, what we should put in the show, what we shouldn't put in, what's age-appropriate. So it's...our advisors who really helped us a lot and as I was saying very quickly when I showed you that little reel about our guest stars, Matt Damon's mom who teaches at Lesley is one of our advisors and she's really good as they all are. And we have great young writers! They...will get together once a year and we'll make a list of things that might make good show shows and...one day I said 'desk wars'! And they wrote a whole story about kids and their desks and classroom and the wars that they were having with... each other...or head lice! Who's going to deal with head lice? We are!"
The next question is from a little girl who asks if any of his books have been adapted in braille because her mother is blind, to which Marc replies that "there are quite a few Arthur books that are in Braille. I was working directly with the Perkins School". At the 52:49 timestamp, Kathy Brodsky, a clinical social worker who also writes children's books herself comments on the work Marc and his wife, Laurene Krasny Brown did on Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families and When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, commenting that she has used the books "for people of all different ages and they've been terrific". Marc turns everyone's attention towards Laurene for a round of applause and describes how she went about writing those stories. "Laurene worked at...Harvard with the brilliant Howard Gardner for many years in project zero and did a lot of research of children and media. And she's so good at taking those hard issues and...getting the right questions for families to talk about". The last question is from a little boy, who asks Marc what inspired him to make Arthur into a TV show to which he responds "well, like I said, I wanted kids to read and I wanted kids to go to the library and pick out more books. And Arthur is all about reading... [W]hen he has difficult things in his life, one of the first things he does is go to the library to try to learn about it". After Marc thanks everyone for coming and supporting his work, there is also a book signing taking place.
I purchased a copy of In New York at the book signing. When I get to Marc's table, I briefly introduce myself and tell him what I'm studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (animation at the time). I then expressed my interest in writing and illustrating my own original stories and characters, so I asked his advice for aspiring writers. Marc's response was very simple: just keep writing and exploring. You just need to find what is inspiring to you and keep practicing the skills. If you have a great idea you want to write about and it's important to you, keep working on developing the story and character you've been working on.
Of all the advice I received that year in regards to getting started with creative ideas, this was one of the strongest and it stuck with me ever since. Sometimes it's easy to get so caught up in the little details about how people get into writing a book (or any other form of media for that matter), but what they often forget that it's the craft that goes into writing and illustrating the final product people value most. The time and effort put into a project and the quality of writing is what resonates with your audience in the end. If you can write good, enriching stories and characters that resonate with the reader, you are on the right path. In the case of writing children's books, it's important to learn about your age group, what your topic is, do the research, seek good help and information from others who specialize in the topic to decipher what is an age appropriate way to tell the story, develop the idea and most of all, you will never stop learning.
When walking into a coffee shop or a store at a mall or a lifestyle center, some of these places might have a floor decorated with a pattern entirely made up of tiles. Sure, it's not the first thing we think about when walking in, but we might be aware that the color of the tiles are purposefully set up to match the store's brand color scheme, but could something as simple as floor tiles tell a story we often overlook? In an episode of NHK World Japan's The Mark of Beauty, hidden stories are not only told, but there is a level of craftsmanship that makes tiles into a true work of art.
The Mark of Beauty is an NHK World Japan original documentary series that centers around the arts and crafts unique to Japanese culture. It features the art of everyday life arts and crafts that go unnoticed at a first glance, but upon close examination, there is a greater depth and meaning which creates the beauty of such techniques. The episodes center around topics such as the craftsmanship behind embroidery, jade, kiriko cut glass and lacquer-ware. The episode delving into the art of tiles stood out the most to me because whenever one steps into a store or shop decorated with tiles, the last thing that comes to mind is how can it be seen as an art form. Within the three main categories, Style, Versatility and Art, the viewer receives new insights into how something so simple as the way tiles are set up can contain a greater story and craft than they realize.
As Part One of the episode starts with Style, we are introduced to writer, Eri Nishimura and photographer, Junichi Okugawa, who are traveling around Japan taking snapshots of the various tiles they come across. Impressed with the tile work, Okugawa takes pictures of the floor at a shopping arcade clothing store. The narrator then delves into his and Nishimura's fascination on the subject.
"Their love for tiles has culminated into a photo book. They put their feet in the photos for size comparison and also to show that the tiles are indeed on the floor! They say an old shopping arcade is a treasure trove of tiles. Nishimura takes us to a shop that has one of her favorite tiles."
Thus, she leads the viewer to a meat shop, which opened in 1936. It contains such vibrant tiles, shining with reds and oranges with white outlines, laid out in front of the display case. At that point, we hear a bit of backstory behind how such tiles were chosen. "The owner's mother laid these tiles around 1975. She chose this design in hopes of giving the shop a modern makeover" says the narrator. Shop owner, Masayuki Arai tells Nishimura and Okugawa that after plumbing work was being done on the shop, a few of the tiles were cracked, that they had to be replaced. His mother had hoped to find the same colored tiles as the original, but they were so rare, they are practically irreplaceable. Arai goes on to say that "they've been [t]here for so long, so [he's] attached to them". Okugawa "pays homage to the shop's history and snaps a pic", which features Arai's feet standing on the floor as well as another photo with Nishimura's beside his. "It's been taken care of, so the color is still there, not faded. And the cracks in them actually make them tasteful. I feel attached to it and I really adore it" says Nishimura. The narrator then states how much the tiles had supported Arai's shop over the course of four decades, which brings us to the first mark of beauty: "Aging Together". Aside from how long the tiles had been around for, the reason for their selection and what they had endured over the years, even within all their simplicity, they carry a meaningful story altogether. Upon hearing the story behind the tiles, it's no wonder Arai has such a personal attachment to them.
The narrator even goes as far back in history as the 6th century when tiles were transferred over to Japan from China with the example of the Todaiji Temple in Nara. Although tiles were ultimately used in temples to design the floors, it was after the earthquake of 1923 that prompted a more common use of tiles. Since the buildings were wooden structures, making them a fire hazard, this evoked a shift in the type of materials used to build buildings. From wooden structures to concrete ones, tiles became the norm. In the intervening years, they eventually became more and more artistic and stylish as seen in the Tokyo National Museum with a work created by Taishin Ikeda. The wall designed by Ikeda features a pattern of an imaginary flower, which is plastered before the tiles are applied. According to the narrator, "drawing a motif with small pieces of tiles was a revolutionary method at the time" the piece was made. Even in modern times, artisans are always developing new methods to designing with tiles. Contemporary artisan, Amane Shiraishi demonstrates his craft, process and the art behind them by demonstrating the making of a living room wall. The project was made for a client who wanted a 'happy and colorful wall', so Shiraishi explains that he made it colorful, but the important thing was to make it stylish. Citing the works he had been exposed to while being trained in Morocco, he highlighted his observations of tile work done on a mosaic. Along with the array colors used in the design, white tiles were always present between colors. As we often hear the phrase, 'less is more', the end results are a prime example of such. With the large curvy white tiles in the center of each triangular shaped color tile, the ambiance the of wall texture sets a different mood each time of the day. As the sun sets, the bumps in the white tiles change the feel of the setting in the living room than that of how it looks during the day. "And it will watch over this family from here [where it stands] always" says the narrator to conclude Part One of the episode. The tiles will all age together with their own story to tell for years to come.
Part Two, Versatility, as the title implies, delves into the various functions tiles are adapted to. In Kasahara, Gifu, the highest amount of tiles are produced as seen in their shops and cafés. The café featured in this documentary, for example contains colorful tables, decorated with tiles that immediately catches the eyes of visitors. What's even more fascinating is how the tiles are used to create various sections of the shop as if they were separate rooms. This is achieved by decorating the floor with a flower pattern on one section of the shop and using the same pattern, but with opposite colors on the other. The vibe of the pattern feels like a 'charming flower garden' as the narrator describes it. These small sized tiles are used to create a big picture. Café owner, Kumiko Tamesawa offers her insight by indicating that "[t]iles can be used to create designs in infinite ways" and that she "discovered that by just changing the colors you use, you can give a totally different impression". After the narrator highlights how the various combinations of tiles can display an array of expressions, the second mark of beauty is "Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities". Small sized tiles open a window of possibilities for artisans to create an assortment of new patterns as seen in the Mosaic Tile Museum, which is located in the town of Kasahara. The museum itself is a major staple of the town with its historic origins as a town known for its pottery making until the 1950's when manufactures shifted their focus to tiles. Since then, the tile factories produced creative new pattern designs, even drawing inspiration from fashion magazines. "I think most factories then did not have their own designers, so the President or the salesperson of each company were the ones who designed the tiles." recalls chairman of tile trading company and former tile designer, Kazuyuki Nakane "We used to always be thinking of tiles, looking at everything, thinking how they could be motifs for tiles. We were always looking to create new designs". In addition to finding innovative design methods, the traditional means of craftsmanship is still active even in the age of machines. The viewer is then introduced to a tile manufacturing company, founded in 1957, where traditional, hands-on tools are still in use. The viewer then meets a fifty-year veteran tiler named Masako Matsuyama, who demonstrates her process and showcases her craft as well as the reasoning behind her design choices. So, why is such a task still carried out to this day if with all the technology given at our disposal is an option open to designers? "When this is done by humans, you get a soft impression. It's more beautiful!" Matsuyama pinpoints. "When done by machine, it feels calculated". Indeed, there is an organic quality that goes into the craft of tile making that machines simply cannot capture or replicate. This goes to show that tiling is more than just applying a pretty pattern on a wall or floor to simply look nice, but it truly is an art form. This brings us to the final segment of the documentary where Style: Aging Together and Versatility: Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities start to come into full circle.
Art is the third and final segment the episode explores. At this point, we know that style is how tiles age gracefully and versatility is how tiny pieces can paint an even greater picture, but did you know that there are public bathhouses in Japan that contain murals made entirely up of tiles, forming a complete image? A public bathhouse located in Kamigyo, Kyoto has a scenery image on the wall, depicting a lake surrounded by grassy hills, snowy mountains, sail boats and a castle. The lake being placed in front of the bath gives an illusion of flowing water as if the water in the image is flowing into the tub. Because tiles are resistant to water, the mural is still in perfect condition even four decades later from the time it was created, once again highlighting how they age together as well as how such tiny pieces are formed to create endless possibilities. At another bathhouse, located in Itabashi, Tokyo, is decorated with an image of sea fairies, which was completed in 1953. In fact, a Japanese painting piece from that same year also served as an inspiration for its motif. A combination of the light reflecting on the image as well as the steam depicted in the image and coming from the bath give visitors a mystical type of aura. According to bathhouse owner, Shinichi Zenimoto, people post positive comments in their blogs about how relaxed they feel when they see this piece, much to his delight. People even come to the bathhouse because they really want to see the mural. That said, the third and final mark of beauty is "Art, Savored from the Tub". The viewer then receives a glimpse into the creative process behind one of the murals made by architect, Kentaro Imai. The piece he made for a bathhouse in Machida, Tokyo is based on a piece by Yokoyama Taikan. To differentiate his piece from that of the one made by the iconic painter, Imai limits his palette to twelve colors to keep it from being too over saturated in gold. He utilizes a select few yellows and variate with other colors to give visitors the feeling as though they are bathing in the clouds. With a simple color palette, there is a great deal of depth that creates a three dimensional feel. As Imai goes over his process and the reasoning for his design choices, the viewer can see how and why his efforts paid off in the end with comments from guests saying that the mural belongs in an art museum as bathhouse owner, Taichi Tsuchida mentions.
It's interesting and amazing how some of the most everyday structures can be easily taken for granted at a first glance. When taking into account how something seen in everyday life like tiles can be used to create so much more than a commodity, the possibilities start to seem endless. With an array of art styles, to creative techniques, to craftsmanship that can go into tile work, one can garner a new found appreciation of it, be it from the simplest of patterns to more complex variations, to those that form an image. So, the next time you come across a wall or floor with tile work that sticks out to you, don't be afraid to ponder its backstory and ask about it. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.