(Art) Macabre and Erotic Obsessions: Contemporary Japanese Illustration

For those who don’t know, I’ve been splitting my time between Tokyo and the US for the last four years, but I am not a Japanophile. I didn’t come to teach English. I have no obsession with Naruto or One Piece or AKB. But I am getting to know her.

Japan is not anime or hentai anymore than Germany is beer and furry porn, although both include those things. In her art, however, Japan does exhibit an intense fascination with the erotic and the macabre. Subjects are overwhelmingly female, regardless of the gender of the artist. Men, when they are depicted, tend to be beastly — insects or rapists — or sometimes inanimate objects: automatons or the soulless products of the assembly lines they tend in real life.

The female subjects are infinitely varied, although an obsession with sex and appearance is common. This is not simple sexism, although there is plenty of that here. Many Japanese artists are female, after all, and they tend to choose the same subject matter. The reason is simple. They are depicting Japan herself.

Several themes emerge, notably violation of the body (rape, dismemberment, transfiguration, forced mechanization) but also confusion, loss, nature, and (importantly) identity. This despite that Japanese people are, for the most part, overwhelmingly polite, positive, diligent, urban, hard-working, respectful, orderly, submissive, and chaste.

They are, however, children of a narcissistic culture which admits no outsiders. Non-Japanese can never become citizens, for example. Comfortably ensconced in its archipelago, isolated for centuries, Japan fell in love with itself and so banished the rest of the world. The appearance of Commodore Perry and his US naval gunboats in 1853 was such a shock that it is impossible to overstate its significance. Almost overnight, a thousand-year tradition cracked. Japan became schizophrenic.

What followed was the manic and total reorganization of society, the most intense ever undertaken, whereby Japan intended to beat the West at its own game — to prove its superiority and so recapture its sanity and singular sense of place in the cosmos.

For a time, that seemed immanent. In the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, for example, Japan became the first Asiatic country to defeat a major Western power. But it was not to last. In the perverse poetry of history, the land of the rising sun, as she called herself, was defeated by the very power of that sun.

Failing a military solution, she tried an economic one. For a time, that too seemed like it might succeed. But ultimately, Japan’s “economic miracle,” as it was called, collapsed in the mid-90s, leaving her deflated and unsure.

The Japanese believe — have believed for centuries — that there is one perfect way to do everything: to be a man, to be a woman, to paint a flower, to make tea, to manufacture a car. (Interestingly, the most popular how-to book is a detailed technical guide to committing suicide.) Her artisans and craftsmen strive to find that one perfect way, which is why their produce is synonymous with quality.

Having discovered she is not the world’s one perfect culture, but in fact a stranger on planet earth — her language, for example, is unrelated to any of those around her; linguists are not even certain where to put it — Japan has become trapped in a bland reverence of the past, the old but uniquely Japanese way of life, so unlike any other on the planet.

Her people now go about in a kind of rote but incomplete repetition, machines bound by duty and propriety rather than programming, as their society slowly disintegrates around them. The economy stagnant, the population declining, Japan — or what was Japan — is, in a very real sense, evaporating.

Her artists, then, are preoccupied with body and identity (who are we?), with beauty and perfection (what is the perfect way?), with perversion and deformation (what have we become?), and especially with reproduction and death, twins in opposition (can we survive?).

Take this thoughtful watercolor by Jun Ayafuya in which a schoolgirl walks through flooded rice fields, symbolic of old Japan, toward an unknown destination.


Both her and the landscape, which is roughly Fuji-shaped, are perfectly reflected in the still water, but if you look closely at the tones (or if you invert the image), you can see that the upper half, the “real” part, is actually paler than the reflection, whose sky is bluer and foliage greener. The “real” is in a sense the reflection, and the girl, who is modern Japan, is stuck following a rigid path set by the past.

Note also how the right and left halves of the image are symmetrical — rough reflections of each other, giving no sense of progress. You could easily make an animated GIF of this image where the path continually scrolls underneath her as she walks and nothing really changes.

What follows is not a survey. I’m sure I have omitted some big names and misrepresented others. It is merely a personal collection, a sample of the art I’ve accumulated during my time there. I’ve focused on illustration, but one can find similar themes in sculpture and handicraft. Artists I’ve featured before are linked in their name. (You can also read Notes on the Japanese Aesthetic and SHUNGA! The Art of the Woodblock Money Shot for more.)

As you peruse the galleries (click for larger images), keep in mind the themes: body and identity, beauty and perfection, perversion and deformation, and especially reproduction and death — or, the erotic and the macabre.

Hikari Shimoda

Aya Kato

Shohei Otomo

Takato Yamamoto

Yuji Moriguchi

Kotaro Chiba

Satoru Imatake

Masaaki Sasamoto

Toshio Saeki

Yuko Shimizu

Miho Hirano

Namio Harukawa

Jun Kumaori

Tomoko Kashiki

Shintaro Kago

Junko Mizuno

Tetsuya Ishida

Rie Yamashina

As a bonus, sculpture by Tsutomu Kawakami, which depicts an emaciated female body, like a wraith, fading away — both a figure from old Japanese folklore and Japan herself:

tsutomu kawakami