Soft, cute, childlike, girly—at a glance, it’s hard to see how anybody might have a bone to pick with the Japanese aesthetic of kawaii. Since its earliest appearances in the pop culture of 1970s Japan, the saccharine trend has swept the world, finding global appeal with a generation as fond of escapist nostalgia as the Japanese teens of the post-bubble economy who first popularized it.
The concept that took its baby steps as a design element has gone on to make a lasting impression on the Japanese art scene. But while both the manga industry and the fine art world continue to celebrate hypersexual portrayals of doe-eyed, busty high school girls, a new wave of transgressive women artists is starting to turn the tide: Junko Mizuno, Aya Kakeda, Hinako Hinana, Chiho Aoshima and Risa Mehmet, to name but a few.
The artists all share a common, cute-infused aesthetic, albeit one with a sinister streak—eerie transfigurations of monstrous women or claustrophobic tableaus of femininity usurping the pervasive, passive ideal. Some call it dark shojo ("girls") art. Others just call it creepy.
“In Japan, women always need to be cute and obedient and young and pretty,” muses Tokyo-born illustrator and ceramics artist Aya Kakeda. “But when you’re a woman, there are a lot of dark thoughts. You’re a person, with many emotions, so you can’t just be ‘cute.’ I think when I draw, that type of frustration comes out. It’s a cute character,” she says decisively, “but really… it’s not.”
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Kakeda's frustration is revealed in her contrast between the cute and the grotesque: her work frequently features a mischievous little girl (“usually it’s me,” she laughs), or small groups of girls. In one painting, a black-and-white crowd of tiny clones clutch their handbags and mobile phones; the only splash of color is the bubblegum pink that stains both their accessories and the bandages covering each tiny face. Rather than a critique of teenage consumerism or selfie culture, though, it’s an expression of female community.
“That’s part of a book called Mickey Virus,” Kakeda explains. Her short narrative series tells the story of a girl who cuts off parts of her body after finding herself infected by a mawkish, brainwashing, Disney-inspired virus. “In the end she cuts all the parts off, and wraps herself in a bandage. That painting shows that it’s not just one girl—it’s all the girls in the city who got infected. But they didn’t like all thinking one way, so they all cut off the ‘Mickey’ parts and became individuals,” she says.
It’s clear that the stultifying conventions of kawaii culture have had both an impact on the artists’ personal lives and their bodies of work. “I didn’t have a choice in being influenced by [kawaii]. That was the way all little girls drew people,” remembers Junko Mizuno, a comic book artist and a significant early pioneer of the style. “But I was always frustrated by the people who assume that cute things can only be cute.
"Like—I’m very short. I’m only four foot ten and sometimes people assume I’m very weak, nice and sweet. But I’m not like that at all!” she protests. “Tiny things can be really powerful.”
Both women are artistic forces to be reckoned with, and have carved out successful international careers in illustration—an area, Kakeda notes, that remains male-dominated. “But it’s changing,” she says hopefully.
Tokyo-based artist and Sweet Lolita-dressing, self-styled "Doll Princess" Hinako Hinana witnessed the emergence of this new wave with interest. In recognition of the growing genre, she curated a Kyoto exhibition of shojo art this year, featuring eight artists whose work explored the dark underbelly of girl culture.
The subversive combo of apprehension and cuteness, she says, resonates particularly with women. “A lot more women than men have responded to the creepy-cute appeal of my work,” says Hinana. “The combination of something scary and something cute at the same time has a particular charm, I think.”
Hinana’s own unsettling oil paintings of glum-faced Lolita girls, their adult limbs jammed into miniature prams and cribs, create an unambiguously foreboding impression of the heavy mantle of girlish femininity. Her characters morph into animals, and women grow the bodies of lions or birds. This kind of female metamorphosis, she observes, is a frequently recurring theme in the genre. Still, the ostensible darkness and bodily transformation might be more symbolic of liberation and creative freedom. “Darkness is comforting and consoling,” she adds thoughtfully.
Kakeda agrees that it’s not as morbid as it seems. “Sometimes people ask me why there’s a lot of dark and grotesque things in my work, but I don’t think of it like that,” she says. “I cut off this character’s head but it’s not the end: Maybe something else will grow from it. For me it’s not a bad thing that I cut off this person’s hand or head, it’s just a change or a transformation.”
Likewise, Mizuno is keen for people to feel energized by the more visceral aspects of her work. At the opposite end of the color spectrum, her psychedelic style vibrantly references life, nature, and creation. “In Japanese culture, women are beautiful when they’re weak and fragile. I was frustrated by that, so I like to depict women as really powerful. Sometimes like a monster; a beautiful monster.” Her voluptuous, feminine Medusas are a bold take on female sexuality, bucking the trend of kawaii emphasis on childlike and immature bodies. “Women giving birth to babies—it’s part of the special power women have,” she says.
As for the macabre edge, the combination with cuteness just comes naturally. “I’ve experienced so many different things in my life, not just happy things, so it’s natural for me to put all that in my work,” explains Mizuno. “I’m not doing it just to shock people.” Ultimately, the goal has never been to titillate or outrage. “I don’t care if it’s cute or attractive,” Mizuno says of shojo art. “What I want is for people to enjoy my work.”