Nobumichi Tosa stares straight into my camcorder. He presses a button on the small rectangular switchboard on his chest. The wings strapped to his body start to slowly rise. He pauses, expressionless. He raises his arms.
Then, with a snap of his fingers, he launches into an upbeat, 20-second musical performance triggered by the beat of his snapping. Every snap makes mallets at the end of his wings drum on a pair of temple blocks. It sounds like a mashup between a Buddhist funeral and a trance party.
Tosa is the president of Maywa Denki, a Tokyo-based art collective whose quirky instruments have made waves among musically inclined geeks and artists across the globe. His warehouse is full of handmade electronic instruments. He shows me an automated folk guitar controlled by an external pick; daisy-shaped xylophones with petals that open and close to a beat; and a bellows-powered artificial vocal cord connected to a PC that emanates sound through a fake human ear.
He’s wearing blue work clothes over a shirt and tie, which he tells me is his stage costume. “I used to wear a tuxedo,” he says, “but it made me feel like a magician.”
The name Maywa Denki comes from an electronics store that Tosa’s father used to own. Tosa always knew he wanted to be an artist, but it wasn’t until he got to college that he realized his creative tool of choice would be the machine.
“There was a workshop at my university that looked exactly like my dad’s old store,” he says. “And I thought, Maywa Denki has become a forgotten thing of the past, but maybe it’s time I can resurrect it.”
Working closely with Masamichi, his older brother, Tosa made a collection of 26 gadgets themed around different species of fish. “We realized that the Japanese would never understand this as conventional art, so the electronics store turned out to be a good way to present ourselves.” The workclothes are also an homage to their dad — a replica of the standard uniform for small- to mid-sized blue-collar jobs during the economic boom of the 1970s.
Tosa’s inventions range from working instruments to dysfunctional robots to skeleton-shaped extension cords. They all have one thing in common: they are “nonsense machines.”
“Usually, machines are logical parts put together in logical ways. I have a background in art, and I like to make things that are illogical. Of course, there’s engineering behind it all, which means I’m putting logic behind illogic — it’s all very oxymoronic,” he explains matter-of-factly.
Most of Maywa Denki’s creations are sold through their website (maywadenki.com) and online retailers like Amazon Japan. Tosa’s latest invention, a tadpole-shaped, theremin-like instrument called the Otamatone, hit the consumer market in August 2009. He also does musical performances with his kooky instruments and silly robots in Paris, Osaka, and Washington.
As I watch Tosa and his instruments in action, I realize that his entire studio has taken on an unparalleled life of its own. “Japan is a country of animism,” Tosa says when I mention this. “We believe everything has a spirit. Tools are fun, and by using them in different ways, you can figure out your own path. Just like judo and bushido, what I’m showing you is Maywa-do — the path of Maywa Denki.”