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Bringing art — and Super 8 — to students in the sticks

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Joining a school club in Japan is still seen by many educators and parents as a way to build character and instill the values of teamwork and self-discipline in students. Japanese junior and senior high schools are well known for “club activities” or bukatsu, which often seem to occupy every moment of a teenager’s spare time until they “retire” to prepare for entrance exams and the next step up the education ladder.

Even when they are safely into university, many students opt to join one of the clubs on campus. However, unless they are playing at a competitive level for a top-ranking team, college students generally enjoy less pressure and a lot more autonomy with their clubs. It can be a time to find new hobbies, discover hidden talents and perhaps even gain skills that will be of use in their future careers.

A case in point is Optik, a visual arts club at Hakuoh University in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture. Although far removed from the bright lights of Tokyo, the students are tackling projects with aplomb and producing a body of work that easily holds its own against that of their city cousins.

The club is led by American Paul del Rosario, a lecturer at Hakuoh with a special interest in the fields of social media and visual communication. He works as a “semi-professional” photographer on the side when time allows.

According to del Rosario, the university is known mostly for its sports, and through Optik, he sought to develop a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the visual arts among students. As the university lacks a visual arts program, creative direction was needed. “I wasn’t just the club’s official ‘teacher’ who simply rubber-stamps their projects and remains invisible. My office is essentially like a creative studio where students and I brainstorm ideas, eat lunch together, edit, do photo shoots, etc.”

While Optik is not specifically a photography club, their major project over the past year has revolved around the use of film.

“Students learn not only how to use a camera and lens, but to think of a concept and discover what it means to tell a story visually,” del Rosario explains. “Our biggest project was ‘Showa 90.’ The aim was to get students to make short black-and-white films using Kodak Super 8 cameras. The theme was documenting the remnants of Showa design aesthetics in architecture and typography.”

2015 was the 50th anniversary of Super 8, a motion picture film format released in 1965 by Eastman Kodak that was very popular with amateurs until being largely replaced by video. The format, however, is still often used by professionals in the music, advertising and movie industries for special projects, as well as by many visual artists who feel it has aesthetic qualities that can’t be matched by video.

What was the incentive for students of the 21st century to use a medium that lost popularity well before they were even born? “Aesthetics from the 1950s to the late 1980s are a big influence on contemporary design, art and fashion, so I thought it was important for the students to capture this history before these things disappear and Japan becomes so ‘modern’ to the point that you’ll see a Starbucks or McDonald’s on every street corner,” says del Rosario.

He sourced and acquired a set of used 8 mm cameras from Germany for the club, along with equipment for editing, splicing and viewing the students’ work. Del Rosario is clearly passionate about the merits of preserving the past for the future.

“Just to give you an idea about the longevity of Super 8, there is only one shop in Asia which sells single 8 mm film, and it’s located in Tokyo and their stock is scarce. Chemicals to self-process 8 mm film are hard to find, and many users are now left to mix their own supplies from scratch. To cut a long story short, Super 8 is almost dead, but there are pockets of users worldwide that aim to keep it alive. I’d like to contribute to this effort by igniting something in this university in rural Japan.”

The students held an exhibition last summer in Tokyo in collaboration with Noramoji, a collective of professional designers and creators. When they heard about the students’ work, Kodak Japan generously donated some of their products to the club.

Another undertaking has been Japan Campus Fashion, with the students using their skills to take fashion photography and uploading their work on a bilingual blog. “As we’re out in the countryside, there aren’t really many fashionistas out here, but were hoping to get other universities in Japan to contribute photos to the blog,” notes del Rosario. “The primary audience is really people outside of Japan — to show the world what fashion trends are happening in Japan.”

Del Rosario has future visions of the students designing and marketing original products such as hats and T-shirts via their own bilingual website, simultaneously honing their skills in English, design and e-commerce.

Most universities in Japan have English-related clubs and extracurricular programs, and native-speaker teachers typically find themselves put in charge of such things as ESS (English Speaking Society) or speech contests. Del Rosario encourages other foreign instructors to think outside the box and seek out engaging projects to help their students develop their skills.

“If you think about it, people outside of Japan will be more likely to want to talk to your students (in English) if they have something interesting or unique to say or show. Do something at your school that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The challenge, of course, is making that discovery,” he says.

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