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May 5, 2023

Emi Kusano and Japan’s New Retro

The artist and performer discusses how AI is reimagining youth culture with Yusuke Shono
Credit: Emi Kusano, Neural Fad (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Bright Moments
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Emi Kusano and Japan’s New Retro

Before entering Web3, Emi Kusano was already well-known in Japan for her street photography and retro-futurist persona as lead singer of synthwave band, Satellite Young. In 2020, she co-founded the NFT collective Shinsei Galverse with Ayaka Ohira, the animator responsible for the music video that accompanied her debut solo, “Glass Ceiling.” A PFP project comprising 8,888 anime “Gals,” following its launch in April 2022, Galverse held the top spot on OpenSea’s NFT sales 24-hour ranking.

As a multidisciplinary artist who has made a career reviving 1980s pop culture, Kusano is naturally suited to the world of crypto art, with its overt embrace of technostalgia. This week sees the launch of her new NFT project, Neural Fad, that uses AI to reimagine Japanese fashion lore. On the occasion of Bright Moments Tokyo, Right Click Save is pleased to reunite the artist with another celebrated participant from last year’s Right Click Live, editor of Massage Magazine, Yusuke Shono.

Emi Kusano, Neural Fad, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Bright Moments

Yusuke Shono: As we celebrate Galverse’s first anniversary, how do you reflect on the past year in the NFT scene?

Emi Kusano: We were lucky with the timing of our release, but Galverse expressed our personal worldview rather than riding on a bandwagon. While the floor price for all our works has been dropping, we are happy to have found fans who still believe in us and support us regardless. We are now in the animation production stage, and I am grateful to see that the community is expanding naturally.

YS: Before NFTs, you were active as a musician. In the music videos for your band, Satellite Young, you expressed the world in the style of old Japanese anime.

EK: I have been obsessed with past cultures since I was a child. My father was a fashion designer, and he had a very niche job of recreating 1950s fashions and drawing on leather jackets. So we had a lot of art books and fashion archives at home. I was a maniacal elementary school student who categorized fashion according to the decade — from 1970s pants to miniskirts worn by Twiggy in “swinging” London. While everyone around me was listening to Morning Musume, I preferred to listen to early pop music and learn more about it.

I was the kind of kid who longed for the sparkling idols of the bubble era, and I only watched TV shows from the past.
Emi Kusano, Neural Fad, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Bright Moments

YS: Did these tastes naturally lead you to music?

EK: I started Satellite Young after a conversation with the artist Sputniko!, who suggested I start making my own music after previously working as a photographer. Following a period of study in the US, I came to realize that the way Japanese people dress is completely different to everyone else. Whenever I visited Harajuku, I would encounter many people with their own distinct styles, which led me to photograph street fashion.

I am particularly attracted to the period prior to the 2000s, when magazines and TV had a strong influence on styles of dress. After the millennium, clothing gradually became more subdued as H&M, ZARA, and Uniqlo came to prominence. With smaller stores increasingly going out of business, we seemed to have entered an era of homogenous style.

Emi Kusano, Neural Fad, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Bright Moments

YS: Would you say that your creative activity is born of a longing for past cultures?

EK: Yes, it is. No matter what I do, my work always ends up being retro. But I am also looking to shape a new past around the image of the magical girl. All the girls in 1990s sci-fi anime were attractive, but they were often conceived for the male gaze. Ayaka Ohira and I have sought to imagine a strong “gal” that would not have appeared in anime of the past. But this is more an exploration of post-truth as an art-making approach than an attempt to recreate the past.

We are looking to reveal a past with a different dimension to the real past.
Emi Kusano, Neural Fad, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Bright Moments

YS: Your work for Bright Moments, Neural Fad, seems to channel this approach. What made you adopt AI and “post-photography” for this project?

EK: I’d been wanting to explore generative AI for some time. What I’ve found is that, as I repeat the generative process thousands of times, a bias emerges in favor of what I want. 

Generative AI expresses my desires and the world I want to see, which, for me, is a youth culture of the past. 

This is not Orientalism or Kawaii Culture, but a reference to a culture that actually existed, combined with an embrace of sci-fi futures. I think it was the Internet and algorithms that destroyed magazine culture and individualism in fashion. Niche subcultures are now connected through the Internet, which has clearly liberated some people. That’s a good thing, but I am more interested in reversing that in order to create a new youth culture.

Emi Kusano, Neural Fad, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Bright Moments

YS: How do you envisage generative AI affecting society in the future?

EK: AI is interesting for the way it offers insight into an individual’s different desires. But given the prospect of infinite content, I also feel that it could obscure historical truths. I am anxious for a world in which there is no longer a boundary between real and fictional pasts.

With the advent of generative AI, everyone will be able to express what is inside their own heads, which will expand the range of digital art even further. That makes me optimistic. However, it will also become increasingly difficult to tell if something is the product of human creation or the latest technology. More than ever, we will need to preserve the ideas behind an artwork and the thoughts of the human beings who conceived them.

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Emi Kusano is a Tokyo-based multidisciplinary artist who explores technology, retro-futurism, and nostalgia for Japanese youth culture and anime. She started out as a teenage street photographer in Harajuku and is now the producer and lead singer of Satellite Young, revitalizing 1980s idol culture while exploring modern technology. In 2021, Emi embraced the Web3 movement through her 8-year-old son’s Zombie Zoo project, inspiring Japanese creators to start NFT careers. She also co-founded the community-driven anime project, Shinsei Galverse, using her character from her music videos as an early prototype. Following its launch in April 2022, the project held the top spot for NFT sales volume worldwide for several days.

Collaborating with animator Ayaka Ohira, Emi reinterprets 1990s sci-fi anime through a magical girl lens, highlighting the liberation of women’s roles in science fiction. She is currently focusing on post-photography to create fictional past fads. Beyond her artistic practice, she is a published author as well as a lecturer at Tokyo University of the Arts. Her work has been exhibited globally, including at SXSW, Austin; the Museum at FIT, New York; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

Yusuke Shono is publisher of Massage Magazine, a media outlet that disseminates information about online culture. He is involved in book and exhibition planning, shedding light on culture yet to be discovered. He is the lead editor of The New Creator Economy (2022), a comprehensive collection of articles and artwork on the subject of NFTs, published by BNN.

This article is also available in Japanese via Massage Magazine.