In April last year, I wrote an article about a few Japanese artists that I love. Unbeknownst to me, I would be visiting Japan a few months later. My trip to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto was a visual feast. My eyes were bloodshot from gawking at books, posters, packaging, flyers, gardens and normally mundane things like barricades at construction sites, which were whimsically shaped like penguins.
On the hunt for vintage Japanese film posters and toys, we went to Nakano Broadway, a shopping mecca for nerds which contains numerous outlets of Mandarake stores (one of Tokyo's largest vendors of used anime and manga-related products). I found a second-hand book store which had weird and rare art books. One particular book was back to front, and in Japanese. I had no idea who the artist was, but I was so seduced by the incredible artwork that I had take it home. After a bit of research I discovered a wild genius:
Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831 - 1889)
Described as "an individualist and an independent, perhaps the last virtuoso in traditional Japanese painting", Kyōsai's life spanned the transition from the Edo to Meiji periods, and he saw his country change from a feudal society to a modern state.
A son of a samurai, he picked up a human head which fell off a corpse in a river at the tender age of nine. It is believed that he took it home and studied and sketched it before his parents discovered it and ordered him to return it to the river. This possibly fuelled his desire to paint the grotesque and macabre.
Considered Japan’s first political caricaturist, he did impromptu sketches of political figures and events while notoriously quaffing prodigious amounts of sake. In 1870, barely two years into the Meiji "Enlightenment," he was imprisoned and flogged by the authorities for his irreverent behaviour.
Aside from his caricatures, Kyōsai also did sketches and paintings that drew inspiration from Japan’s folklore and mythology, incorporating well-known characters such as the kappa (a river imp) and the namazu (a giant catfish who is said to cause earthquakes).
Great-granddaughter Kawanabe Kusumi converted a home in 1977 in the suburbs north of Tokyo into a small memorial museum of about 3,000 of her grandfather's works. With only three rooms to display the collection, the museum rotates the artwork every month or so. This cross-section of Kyōsai's wonderful art is one of the things I'd like to see on my next trip to Japan one day.
More about the artist:
My pinterest folder of Kyōsai's works
Sketches of hell by Kyosai on Pink Tentacle
John Teramoto, curator of Asian Art, explains a Daruma scroll painting made by Kyosai Kawanabe. Concise and interesting video below:
I also bought a book about Keiichi Tanaami in that Nakano Broadway book store. He is one of the leading pop artists of postwar Japan, and has been active as a graphic designer, illustrator, video artist and fine artist since the 1960s.
The psychedelic colour, themes of mass consumption, repetitive and obsessive motifs remind me of Tadanori Yokoo.
In the latter half of the 1960s he immersed himself in making video art, the newest medium in the art scene at the time. He met Andy Warhol during a visit to New York and was very inspired by him, Coca-Cola, American cartoons and comic book characters.
Here is one of the animations he created below:
In 1975, Tanaami became the first art director of the Japanese edition of Playboy Magazine. He revolutionized the large-format magazine.
Tanaami fell ill in 1981 and had a near death experience at the age of 45. While hospitalized, he had a high fever and experienced vivid hallucinations from the drugs used to treat him. He kept a record of his visions which ignited the surreal and psychedelic nature of his later work.
More about the artist:
Coincidentally, his work appears on the cover of the latest issue of High Fructose magazine
Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015)
Manga pioneer, Shigeru Mizuki is best known in Japan for his hit television show, Ge ge ge no Kitaro. His widely loved character, Kitaro, was a spirit child who resided between the world of the living and the realm of yōkai (supernatural monsters and spirits in Japanese folklore). The father of Kitaro lived in Kitaro’s eye socket and took baths in teacups.
Mizuki is also known for his World War II memoirs and his work as a biographer. His wartime experiences affected him greatly. Not only did he watch his friends die from the horrors of war, he also contracted Malaria and lost his left arm in an American air raid. This did not deter him from drawing thousands of beautiful pages of manga when he returned home.
In an interview, he explained that his yōkai characters can be seen only in times of peace, not war, and that he purposely created these supernatural creatures to be of no specific ethnicity or nationality as a hint of the potential for humanity.
Sakaiminato, the birthplace of Mizuki, has a street dedicated to the yōkai that appear in his stories. One hundred bronze statues of the characters line both sides of the road. I would love to visit this city when I hopefully return to Japan one day.
More about the artist:
Yōkai Daizukai, an illustrated guide to yōkai authored by Shigeru Mizuki, features a collection of cutaway diagrams showing the anatomy of 85 traditional monsters from Japanese folklore. Here are a few illustrations from the book.