With its vivid colors, kitch compositions, “kawaii” girls, and superflat-style graphics, Julie Watai’s photography has many of the characteristics representative of contemporary Japanese pop culture. Like Murakami, Mr., Kyary Pyamyu Pyamyu, and others, her work has garnered global attention—her debut photo collection, Samurai Girl, was released by Italian publisher Drago in 2006 and sold about a million copies around the world—but what makes her work so attractive?
Newcomers often wonder if, with its graphic nature and seeming rejection of reality, her works should even be considered photography. Watai modifies the real world as she sees fit, her heavy image processing techniques blurring the boundaries between 2D and 3D realms. But while digital manipulation is par for the course for contemporary photography, Watai has her own special reason for using it:
“I get satisfaction from capturing things that I like, or things that I fantasize about. By taking pictures of these things, I somehow gain ownership of them. I do this because I’ll eventually run out of space if I keep collecting actual objects. It’s the same in regards to beauty. When you photograph a pretty girl, you capture that beauty forever, even when it no longer exists.”
In the new documentary from The Creators Project (viewable above), it quickly becomes clear that what drives Watai is a massive appetite for creating a moment in the real world with her own hands—and preserving that moment forever. But her desires don’t end there.
We, as a people, have been depicting the relationship between humans and machines for centuries, beginning with Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, finding Ghost in the Shell somewhere along the way, and creating contemporary humanoid robots as a result. It’s not uncommon to flip between fear and desire when it comes to thinking about the unknown future, but for Watai, her curiosity for the unseen world seems to overwhelm it. Perhaps it’s because she grew up in an environment surrounded by animations like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, video games like Dragon Quest, and science fiction novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash. Perhaps, it’s just her nature.
When asked why she keeps taking self-portraits, Watai answers, “I do not see [that] my body belongs to me. This is just material for my work.” She has another goal for her “cute girl” portraits regarding her body as a gadget, one slightly different from your everyday narcissism: “It worries me that I may lose my childish ways as I get older. I know that I can’t be young forever, which is why I take a lot of self-portraits. I want to keep taking them, and store them on my computer so that I can play with them until I die.”
Based on anime and manga fandom, otaku culture is founded on the loop of consumption, copy, and production, all of which are derived from endless modes of desire. Watai also started with copying manga characters to produce parodies of them. The results aren't mere duplications, but reproductions of the consumed image. Distorted and grotesque as they may appear—and even as desirous—Watai keeps creating her own worlds within the continuous loop of Japanese pop culture.