Under the Camphor Tree


Totoro in the Camphor Tree – The Plushie Version

Sometimes you just have to sniff the Aqua Velva to keep it real.  Of course, if you don’t think you can sneak something that mainstream into your niche fragrance diet, well……

You can always cheat.

So how about some Japanese art?

Japanese Art - Three Forms

Japanese Art – Three Forms

Normally I remove the price stickers from my artworks, but in this case, conspicuously minimal consumption is in order.

On the left, you have Totoro – fabled character of one of Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest animations, Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro).  I consider myself something of an expert on Totoro, particularly the plush form.  However, I’m something of a fake expert, giving that my wife is the real expert.  Here, you see a small bit of her extensive Totoro plushie collection:

Some of my wife's favorite things!

Some of my wife’s favorite things!

That’s right – she keeps Totoro (but only three of them) right next to her rings, her Royal Doulton milk pitcher, and her picture of President Obama!

Totoro lives under a HUGE camphor tree.  Some of the best artistic touches in the film Tonari no Totoro – including both elements of the story and visual effects – center on this tree.  All true fans of Totoro understand the significance of The Camphor Tree, and in our religious zeal, the very idea is a bit like one of the secret symbols of early Christianity.

If you want to learn more about the cult of Totoro, please visit The Camphor Tree – a nice and very representative fan website.

Going back to the first picture – on the right, you have an example of a kouro (香炉) – a Japanese incense burner.  This particular one was made by a Japanese artist, Masayuki Miyajima, who happens to be a friend of a coworker of mine.  I was very fortunate to be able to buy TWO kouros (savor the word, fellow YSL lovers) from him.  Personally, I think that his kouro are always among his best works.

But what form of Japanese artistry is that blue one, in the middle?  And at $4.99, considerably cheaper than a Totoro plushie?  My friends, I give you Gatsby Aftershave Water, by Mandom!  Yes, friends – the same MANDOM of the infamous Charles Bronson commercial.

So – what was it like?

I mean Gatsby.  Not the ’70’s.

Well, times have changed, and so has MANDOM.   You can still get the old Mandom at my local Japanese grocery store.   It sits on a shelf quite near Gatsby Aftershave Water.  But if you look at the overall range of beauty products, the men’s selection is clearly shifting to newer lines like Gatsby.

The old Mandom, light as it was, has an older, tonic feel. Well – what you can actually find right now is the hair tonic, so that’s not unexpected.  Which is not to say that the odor is simple, because it’s not.  In fact, if I had to characterize the odor of Mandom in two words à la Turin, it would be homeopathic Yatagan.  Choosing Yatagan is a bit arbitrary.  In its short but eventful life, Mandom cycles through resemblance to quite a few classic fragrances.  It’s an old smell – terribly out of date – but it’s good.  You can smell citrus, herbs, aromatics, woods and spices.  It’s an excellent, rich blend.  If it actually had legs, it might even remind me – among more recent fare – of Xerjoff Fiero.  However, it fades within minutes.  It leaves a very faint odor – an odor that will send those young girls who love “sporty” fragrances, running for the safety of their urban apartment buildings, screaming that zombie rednecks from the past are after them.

Yeah.  This is not a current smell.  Classic – definitely.  “Fresh?”  No.

Throw that all away with GatsbyGatsby is clearly a modern scent.  Gatsby is light, transparent, and refreshing in an almost clinical way.  It has a sharp yet pleasant smell – very medicinal – but with the corners rounded off just a bit.  If you look at the ingredients, it’s all clear:

  • Water
  • Alcohol
  • Butylene glycol
  • PEG-20M
  • PPG-6-decyltetradeceth-20
  • Fragrance
  • Sodium lactate
  • Dipotassium glycyrrhizate
  • Menthol
  • o-Cymen-5-ol
  • Benzophenone-5
  • Lactic acid
  • Camphor
  • Aloe barbadensis leaf extract

It’s the menthol that gives Gatsby the familiar cool and refreshing feeling and scent, but it’s the camphor that gives Gatsby Aftershave Water its distinctive smell.  Yes, there may be the omnipresent component “Fragrance” as well, but we’re not talking guerlinade, amigos.  If I use my imagination, there is a bit of yuzu that comes riding in on the catbus (nekobasu, to my fellow Totoro otaku), but overall, “fragrance” is in the back seat, and camphor is driving.  Other than being similarly ephemeral, or maybe more so, this is nothing like good old MANDOM.

Gatsby is also mild on the skin.  My neck skin is rather sensitive to alcohol-based after-shaves, and the wrong ones can leave it looking like a plucked chicken.  Gatsby, in contrast, leaves my skin smooth, clean, and pleasantly non-irritated after my usual irritating shave.

Longevity?  Don’t event think about it.  The most fleeting eau de cologne walks all over this stuff.  Gatsby Aftershave Water leaves an almost subliminal amount of camphor on the skin for the first half hour, and there is a vague sense of cleanliness that persists, but you only get your fragrance-fanatic enjoyment from this one for a minute or two.

By the time you get to the subway, train, or bus, you will smell clean in a very subliminal way.  Unlike in America, where you will smell acceptably fresh all day, like a cleaning product or Bleu de Chanel, with Gatsby, you will be quiet, inconspicuous, and unobtrusive.  And yet, somehow, you will still remember having a very pleasant, very fragrant, and very camphoraceous shave.

Japanese art.  It’s just kinda like that.  It’s more about remembering your enjoyment of things, than about trying to make those things last.  Or, in Japanese, 物の哀れmono no aware – the beautiful sadness of things.  The awareness that all things are fragile, and that their beauty is only with us for a short while.

Totoro camphor tree plush toy, American hand-crafted ironwood duck, and old Japanese Dutch doll

Totoro camphor tree plush toy, American hand-crafted ironwood duck, and old Japanese Dutch doll.

OK.  So maybe the beautiful sadness of things is in the eye of the beholder.  But sometimes you need the story to understand.

The totoro in a camphor tree is a gift that I haven’t yet given to somebody – it waits and waits for the right moment, which never seems to come.

The wooden duck was a gift to my father when I was a teenager, which my mother returned to me after he died.

The doll is my wife’s childhood toy, from over half a century ago – a relic of postwar Japan.  One of her friends helped to restore it, but it is only a brief respite, as the decomposition of the old plastic accelerates toward its inevitable demise.

Suddenly I realize that – for those of us who pause to remember – all fragrances – even our fathers’ Aqua Velva and Mandom – have a personal story behind them.  The fragrances may fade, both on our skin and in the larger picture of history, but our memories of these things remain, and give us pleasure.

Ah.  Refreshing.

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