Warriors of Art

Warriors of Art: A Guide to Contemporary Japanese Artists
by Yumi Yamaguch
published by Kodansha International, distributed by Bookwise International
RRP $49.95

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this elegantly presented survey is that much of the artwork seems startlingly familiar. Certainly part of this familiarity might come about through the Yankeephile integration of Western tropes into Japanese life but it is notable, nevertheless, how pervasive an impact contemporary Japanese aesthetics have had on our popular culture. From Astro Boy to the Mario Brothers, from Hello Kitty to yamato-e, the markers of Japanese style have become globalised and commodified — and thus, sadly, sometimes made quotidian to the point of dullness.

This book, if nothing else, can inspire new reflections on just this dilemma. How can Japanese artists continue to work in styles that have been so objectionably hijacked and exploited by consumerism? Of course, some dodge the quandary by taking their own idiosyncratic path but, as this book attests, most choose to tackle the matter head on.

Takashi Murakami is probably the most famed of the artists on display. His delightful fancies look like Walt Disney had a big weekend with some Japanese dadaists. More accurately, his meticulously detailed and highly complex works take manga and anime and churn them into high art. He also designed the multi-coloured patterning on Louis Vuitton bags, which is either the most inspired cross-promotion since Warhol’s soup cans or a grievous error of judgment for both parties. Murakami writes with fervour of the superflat culture of Japan — the facile and hollow imagery of materialism — and his artwork, it seems, works to further flatten, with ironic glee, the icons of manga that so pervade.

Taking a stab at the pornographic arm of manga, known as hentai in the West, are artists Makato Aida and Mahomi Kunikata, who draw on two of the extremes of the genre: sadomasochism and pedophilia, respectively. Kunikata’s deliberately naive pictures of self-abusing school girls is both an indictment of lurid eroticism and a disarmingly affecting work of empathy for the clearly confused subjects. Kunikata also added her faux-porn to pieces of sushi, creating small pieces of indigestible sexploitation out of raw fish.

There are forty artists represented in Warriors of Art. Each one allowed several examples of their work and provided with a concise blurb by the author. Though hardly an exhaustive tome, it offers a tantalising glimpse at the best new artists to come out of Japan in the last few years. Whet your appetite.