Nori Shirasu is many things – a fine artist, a performance artist and an actor. He paints, he dances, he mimes, sometimes he teaches calligraphy and anime, he’s writing a book – the list is pretty limitless.
Within minutes of meeting him earlier this year, we got talking about not fitting in. Originally from Nagoya, Japan, he told me he had never felt fully at home there, and has lived in Los Angeles for most of his adult life. I was intrigued. I feel like an Other because I don’t have one cultural identity, but to have one and not want it?
When we sat down and talked a few weeks later, I discovered what he meant.
As a child in Nagoya, Nori was painfully shy and really struggled with his identity. His parents encouraged him to be creative, but his father was extremely strict, expecting him to be a straight-A student, go to college and find a respectable career. As a result, he grew up under constant pressure.
He also struggled with the culture of “tough love” that surrounded him. Throughout his childhood, he was teased for playing piano and for having large eyes. Staff at his junior high squashed individuality. Hair had to be a certain length, pants a certain width. All students were supposed to look the same and behave uniformly.
As he remembers, “You had to hide your colorfulness. As a kid, I felt like I was born in the wrong place. In fourth grade, I watched Carl Lewis at the LA Olympics and fell in love with the great energy coming from the stadium. At 15, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker movie changed my life.
“In junior high school, I told my mother I wanted to be Michael Jackson. She said, ‘What about Nori?’ That really made me think deeply.”
“Mechanical Man”, 96″x 96″, Acrylic on Canvas, LA Artcore Brewery Annex, 2005
In high school, in an effort to come out of his shell, he started dancing in front of other kids. “I discovered a new me,” he says. Then, he noticed that he started to get attention. “I got addicted to challenging myself. This was the beginning of the journey of searching for who I was.”
As an architecture student at Chubu University, he left the country for the first time, travelling to Ohio – which wasn’t exactly the America he had imagined from watching it on television. Still, the attraction held. Upon his return, he took a job as a butler at the Nagoya Hilton, which gave him a chance to practice his English on the international clientele.
“I never felt like I was a part of Japanese culture,” he says, looking back. “Growing up in Japan, people laughed at me for what I wanted. To speak English, to be a dancer, to marry Whitney Houston. I thought, just watch.”
In 1997, at the age of 23, he moved to LA. It took a while to get used to trains and buses not running on time, people not showing up on time, unlike in Japan, where everything is perfectly scheduled. At times, he found the culture change disorienting, but on balance he was much happier.
“I lost my mind, I felt so free,” he remembers. “I escaped from a society that tried to control me. I started to hang with street dancers who worked the stiffness out of me.
“It took me years to realize that being different is a good thing,” he adds. “Because I grew up in Japan, I didn’t know the world. Although I grew up with television and Western music, I never left Japan as a kid. My mom would tell me kids teased me because they were jealous of me, but there was no evidence to support this. Leaving Japan gave me a big, eye-opening perspective so I could see myself from a different angle.”
American Apparel Boston Store Mural 2008, Harvard Square, MA
Asked how he defines himself today, he responds in a way that would make his mother proud. “I am Nori. Before I am Japanese. I am a universal tool that the higher power gave me to interpret the energy I feel from others. Through music, art, dance… I’m just interpreting what I perceive.”
Today in LA, he’s part of a multicultural group of artist friends, who he describes as the Fantastic Four or maybe the X-Men. Mutants? Exactly. “Ordinary people would think we’re oddballs,” he admits. “I have friends from every race, and don’t discriminate. I don’t care if you’re black, white, Latino or Asian.”
He does, however, have a large number of friends of African descent and attributes this to their having dealt with discrimination. “They’ve experienced something vulnerable in their lives, and they express it in art forms at the highest level. The great jazz musicians, Hiphop* artists and dancers – what they portray is based on their experiences.”
In spite of the freedom that his adopted home affords him, he realizes that society will always try to define him, and places like Hollywood often resort to typecasting. “I remember a quote from the actor Billy Bob Thornton, who’s from the South. He said he didn’t get any parts ’til he started writing his own scripts.”
And that’s what Nori is doing. Writing his own scripts, doing things his way. So much so that when he revisited Nagoya recently, he felt like an alien. “When I woke up in Japan, I felt like Alice in Wonderland – seventeen years of my American life was all in my dreams, but the dream continues. I know this place but I’m not familiar with this culture any more. The language didn’t flow properly. I even had an American accent. On the phone, people didn’t believe I was Japanese.”
“Jazz Tap”, 22.5″x28.5″, Acrylic on Canvas, LA Art Show 2010 at LA Convention Center
On reflection, what Nori went through isn’t unfamiliar to me at all. My father needed a bigger world than the tenements of Glasgow in which he’d grown up. My mother left Iran at 18 and never moved back, claiming she felt more at home in Scotland. My brother can’t find one culture that is an exact fit for him, but Thailand and Italy come close. My sister lived in Japan for years. The rest of my family reads like a roll call at the United Nations.
As humans, we are all drawn to worlds that fit us geographically, culturally or socially. And that’s why building walls – walls that are intended to preserve the homogeneity of our cultures – will never be the answer.
We just aren’t homogeneous. And that’s what makes us strong.
Thanks for reminding me of that, Nori.
For more Nori, check out his website.