Seattle has gone otaku thanks to an exhibition at the city’s Asian Art Museum. The show, titled Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop, is the first museum solo show in the U.S. to focus on the work of Mr., a Japanese artist and protégé of Takashi Murakami, the founder of the Superflat movement. Like Murakami, Mr. self-identifies with otaku, which roughly translates to “geek” and is usually tied to a love of anime, manga, and doggedness in the pursuit of these hobbies.
In the words of sci-fi writer William Gibson, the otaku is a “passionate obsessive,” happier in the virtual, fantasy world than in the real one. Speaking in an email exchange about Live On, Mr. offered a similar definition, characterizing those that fall under the banner as, “people with introverted personalities who [...] have a special attachment to anime, manga, and video games.” He also pointed to its personal significance, adding, “I've encountered my share of unreasonableness and conflict in interactions with my blood relatives. The world of otaku culture was a place where I could soothe these wounds.”
Beyond simply being a fan of these aesthetics, Mr. has built an art practice around using these forms to comment on contemporary Japanese society. His pop artworks often mask critical, sometimes even dark, aims. For example, his film Nobody Dies (on view in Seattle) addresses Article 9, a constitutional clause created after World War II to prevent Japan from maintaining a standing army. The clause was gutted this summer by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—a controversial move that empowered Japan’s domestic Self-Defense Forces to act against other nations.
“The tepidness of the [Self-Defense Forces] is symbolic of the Japanese puppet state as a whole,” he said. Nobody Dies, which features a cadre of schoolgirls-turned-soldiers battling in pastel war costumes Mr. himself designed, was made as a “parody of that reality,” the artist explained. “It's a ridiculous story in which cute young girls carry air guns and battle each other in meaningless survival games."
Other works reveal a keen interest in current events, too, like the central installation of Live On titled Give Me Your Wings - think different, which is an expanded version of the Metamorphosis installation he created in 2012 at Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York City. The work was made in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. Its centerpiece is a hulking creation built of debris left by the natural disaster that Mr. calls his “garbage caterpillar”—a symbol of the hope for transformation and regeneration. “I saw in [the garbage] sincere human sadness,” he reflected. “Unless the garbage transforms into something else, there wouldn’t be any future for it.”
The destruction wrought by natural forces also conjures images of nuclear disaster, a catastrophe the Japanese are all too familiar with in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident of that same year. For Mr., the country’s reliance on nuclear power is symptomatic of the impotence he perceives in Japanese society at large. “Unable to possess arms, [Japan] instead pins its hopes to the nuclear power industry,” he reflected. And while Give Me Your Wings allows the trash of one disaster to flourish, Mr. believes that that if nuclear power continues fuelling the nation, the garbage caterpillar’s symbolic rebirth will come to naught: “There is a revelation that even when this larva metamorphoses into a butterfly, nothing good will come out of it,” he said.
Mr. also admitted that the use of garbage as a medium had motivations beyond symbolism, explaining that trash is a material he frequently used in his early, student artworks. “I often used to make pieces with garbage I collected. I was influenced by the Italian Arte Povera movement. I think I empathized with Arte Povera because my own family was extremely poor. I was irritated by the post-war poverty in Japan and the grand delusion that was the bubble economy,” he said. Never remiss to connect the seemingly disparate threads of his practice, Mr. is quick to link his work with trash back to his otaku-inflected odes to Japanese subcultures.
All of Mr.’s works—those with polemic undertones, and those without—reflect his fascination with anime, in particular, the young heroines who possess for the artist a “healing beauty and love that many people find in religion.” Many of his acrylics and watercolors feature pretty, wide-eyed anime teens spread over sugary, dreamlike backgrounds.
“I’m obsessed with pretty anime girls [...] I remember thinking that I am the embodiment of garbage, of the delusions of the post-war Japanese. And so the reason I continue to expose myself by making these amateurish paintings of cute girls is because this, too, might be a form of Arte Povera, the expression of spiritual poverty,” he explained. “Once I reached that conclusion, that no matter how much work I put in I was still making garbage, I no longer felt the need to use actual trash in my work.”
Mr.’s depictions of young girls are not unfamiliar to those well-versed in Japan’s subculture, but for unsuspecting foreign publics they possess a certain shock value. His most widely known piece, a music video for Pharrell, caused much online eyebrow-raising when it was released in October, a month before Live On’s opening. The video's star is Yoshi[ch], a slight, delicate, anime blonde who looks no older than 16—a far cry from the kind of eye candy Americans are used to seeing in high-budget music videos, or odes to “it" girls.
In the piece, Pharrell’s interactions with Yoshi[ch] lack the usual machismo, bravado, and vamping of traditional girl/boy music video tales. Their chaste courtship unfolds in several stages, and the first involves Pharrell observing the young girl, longingly, from afar. In perhaps the most memorable scene, Pharrell's avatar admires Yoshi[ch] from a voyeur’s distance as she plays on the beach with her friends. Several of the other animated girls show off well-filled bikini tops. Comments on the YouTube page for "It Girl" suggest that at best, many found the video puzzling, and at worst, to quote one response, “insanely creepy.”
As Matt Alt clarified in The New Yorker, though, "It Girl" and Mr.’s larger girl-dominated oeuvre only make sense if you keep in mind that the artist is a self-confessed lolicon, an adaptation of the English phrase “Lolita complex,” and a subgenre of otaku culture. Though he never used the term lolicon in our conversation, his remarks in a past interview hint at a predilection for this culture and its more-PG counterpart, moe (a more accurate characterization of an "it" girl who is sensual, but never pornographic). Indeed, Mr. wouldn't deny that he derives personal satisfaction from creating these lolicon or moe works. He did note, however, that the video was more than a tribute to a fantasy girl: “I thought that combining the (otaku-tinged) Japanese image of girls with the respect that Pharrell was trying to express for femininity would produce something interesting,” he explained.
“[In Japan], the expressions surrounding young girls are connected to the feeling that the only way to find freedom is through innocence, the overturning of our sense of stagnation, and I felt with this show the strong wish that people would understand that difference in cultural background.” With the past 15 years of the artist’s output now on display in Seattle, there's never been a better chance for museumgoers in the United States to weigh in on the merits of Mr.’s body of work.
For anime, androids, and Japanese pop culture, watch Postcards From Tomorrow: Inside Julie Watai’s Manga-Inspired Photography.
Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop runs through April 5, 2015 at the Seattle Art Museum’s Asian Art Museum.