If Hello Kitty and Pikachu are the epitome of kawaii, then the art of Yoshitomo Nara is the anti-kawaii. Many of his paintings feature little girls with big heads and big eyes, but they’re not smiling. Instead, they regard the world warily, sometimes scowling and sometimes brandishing weapons. Painted in a flat style popular with many J-Pop artists, Nara draws on the conventions of cartooning but subverts them to create works which retain a sense of mystery below their apparently simple surfaces.
Nara is the subject of the documentary Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara, the first film in the New People Artist Series by Viz Media which will focus on Japanese pop artists. Directed by Koji Sakabe, it follows Nara for the year preceding his mammoth installation AtoZ in his hometown of Hirosaki, Japan in 2006. The film is part straight documentary–we see Nara at work in his atelier in Tokyo, on the road interacting with fans and working on the installation in Hirosaki—and part impressionistic montage of Nara’s works. The elements are nicely balanced so that alongside Nara the art-world celebrity we get to see Nara the working artist, and also get to see the range of his work and how people respond to it.
Nara likes to exhibit his art in small buildings or houses constructed within galleries, so visitors must enter the houses, sometimes peering through peepholes or leaning around railings as well, in order to see his work. It’s the ultimate in site-specific installation and creates a very specific viewing experience which requires visitors to leave the ordinary world behind to enter the world constructed by Nara. AtoZ was the culmination of this aesthetic: 26 houses (corresponding to the 26 letters from A to Z) were constructed within a brick warehouse creating a small village of Nara’s art. Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara conveys a sense of the experience of visiting AtoZ, as the camera travels through the exhibit showing both the art itself and people reacting to it.
One thing the film doesn’t try to do is explain Nara’s art: where he gets his ideas, how he developed his distinctive style and the meaning of particular works. These questions do come up in interviews, but he doesn’t have an answer for any of them. And what artist would? Creation can be as mysterious to the creator as to anyone else, and the film doesn’t force simplistic explanations on an essentially unknowable process. Instead, it presents his art and viewer response to it intercut with segments narrated by Aoi Miyazaki which sound like a child’s fairy tale, beginning with “This is a story from an age not so long past. There was an artist who always worked alone. Neither has he been bothered nor has he bothered anyone.”
Children seem especially drawn to Nara’s work, suggesting that he has tapped into fundamental aspects of their experience. This connection is personified in the film by a young Korean girl named Sehee who was so taken by Nara’s art that she wrote a letter of appreciation, calling him “Uncle Yoshitomo” and confiding “I want to call out your name when I’m sad.” The film tracks down Sehee and her family and discovers that she and Nara share common experiences: he grew up as a latchkey child in a small town and spent much of his childhood alone, while she was raised in the remote countryside by her grandmother and lived apart from her mother for almost seven years. Without having the vocabulary to express it Sehee responded instinctively to the expression of childhood isolation which is fundamental to many of Nara’s paintings.
If the first film in the series is any indication, the New People Artist Series looks like it will make a real contribution to our understanding of Japanese pop art. Other films already slated for the series feature artist Yayoi Kusama (“queen of the polka dots”), photographer Daido Moriyama, painter Hisashi Tenmyouya, multi-media artist Makato Aida and sculptor Katsura Funakoshi. See the New People Artist Series for additional information. DVDs are available through the Viz Pictures website. The only extras on the disc are previews of other films in the series but the DVD comes with a four-page booklet which includes an essay by the director.