Translated by Darryl Wee
Paintings that depict an ideal world
Aya Takano depicts the worldview that lies within herself with a degree of faithfulness to her own emotions rarely seen in the work of any other contemporary artist. Her paintings seem to break free of the laws of earthbound gravity and common sense, portraying a fantastic and bizarre sci-fi world populated by girls who frolic with gleeful abandon. This is the earnest utopia that Takano sees in her dreams, a floating vision of a Pop-inflected future that offers viewers the sensation of emotional release, beckoning them towards a glittering feast of visual pleasure.
Takano used to be a hardcore sci-fi fan. Influenced by her father, she began reading sci-fi novels and books about mysticism at an early age. Osamu Tezuka’s “Phoenix”, in particular, made a deep impression on her. The futuristic ideas and sense of cosmic perspective looking down on the Earth that she found in these books became more than just fictional constructs, taking on a tangible reality. Even after outgrowing her adolescence and eventually realizing that reality and sci-fi were not the same thing, she continued to pursue her image of an ideal world in her paintings.
The fact that Takano succeeded in opening up to the outside world without succumbing to introversion can perhaps be traced to a certain intimacy with the everyday that one finds in her work. Even here on Planet Earth, countless things serve as sources of inspiration – illuminated nightscapes lit up for the festive season, beautiful urban scenes, new and original films and manga, fashion, music, and more. By collecting fragments of these fantasies, Takano turns them into imaginary, two-dimensional collages, one after another, just as if she was orchestrating a fashion shoot. This VJ-like sense of speed and bottomless imagination resonates with contemporary sensibilities, while her other crossover activities that transcend the framework of painting, such as producing manga, contributing to magazines, and working in collaboration with cosmetic brands, all serve to expand the reach of her world.
The critical acclaim that Takano’s work has elicited from the international art scene in Paris and New York over the past ten years was initially due to the fact that she had been discovered by Takashi Murakami. Japanese art since the modern era was originally divided between “art” that had been influenced by Europe and America, and the formalized idiom of Japanese painting (nihonga). Figurative painting that belonged to neither category was regarded as a form of illustration affiliated with the subculture. Murakami’s theory of the “Superflat”, however, argued that it was precisely the popular culture embodied by manga, anime, and illustration, all of which gave imaginary worlds a visible form, that were responsible for creating forms of visual art unique to Japan. The roots of these popular art forms, he maintained, could be found in ukiyo-e prints and folding screen (byobu) paintings. Thanks to Murakami, Japanese subculture found itself transplanted into a global context, and young Japanese artists like Takano who bridged the divide between art and subculture won the support of the international art world.
Yoshitomo Nara, whose inimitable portraits of children expressed the subtleties of human emotion, was also a major influence on Takano. In a contemporary art world that tends to lionize conceptual art, Nara and his direct depictions of imaginary inner worlds helped to pioneer a brand of freestyle figurative painting for artists from the younger generation who would follow in his path.
In this way, Takano’s art established itself as an extension of the path whose foundations were laid by Murakami and Nara. The narrative components of her work elicit the sympathy of the viewer through androgynous female figures, while bold compositions that conflate foreground and background recall the portable backdrops and stage sets found in kabuki theater. Elaborate ornamental touches that mix ancient and modern designs and motifs found in both Western and Eastern cultures are delineated using organic brushstrokes that suffuse these spaces with a soft, tender atmosphere. Drawing on the resources of an art education that she has pursued since her high school days, Takano’s imaginary landscapes have blossomed into rich and fertile pictorial spaces where a myriad of different elements fuse with each other.
The sacred and the secular in Takano’s new works
Although the world of Aya Takano has grown ever more expansive in tune with the artist’s own personal development, it now seems as if she has reached a turning point in her career – one that was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear accidents of March 11, 2011 that wrought unprecedented havoc upon the country. The new works that Takano has created for this exhibition in fact contain a number of messages related to this catastrophe. According to the artist, the first gallery contains paintings that express the consciousness of the Japanese people prior to March 11, while the second gallery showcases works depicting images of a paradise that they aspire towards in the wake of the disaster.
“City of yore”, displayed in the first gallery, depicts a red light district emblazoned with the retro neon signs that recall the prewar and mid-century landscapes of Japan’s cities. “From Diary of the Man on the Run”, a whimsical, hallucinatory painting that looks up towards the starry skies, was inspired by an account of how criminal Tatsuya Ichihashi escaped and went on the run after committing a murder in 2007, as well as a bizarre drawing that he had made for the cover of a book. Takano considers Ichihashi a “symbolic figure that emerged out of our contemporary condition,” and is fascinated by the inner life of this mentally unstable person.
The mood in the next room, however, shifts abruptly to a melancholic one. Based on news reports in the wake of the nuclear accidents of March 11, “The Day the ostrich and the dogs met” depicts an encounter between an ostrich and a dog roaming around a town in Fukushima. Elsewhere, “All Was Light” and “Anahata” present us with the sight of a ravaged beach littered with heaps of garbage and debris, and grassy plains on which houses swept away by the tsunami used to stand. Lying just ahead of this carnage, however, is a beautiful sight – that of a lively group of children frolicking in the ocean. According to Takano, these scenes that greeted her eyes when she visited the disaster-stricken areas were also “visions of a world in ruins that I had read about before in science fiction”.
“Previously, I made lots of paintings that depicted urban landscapes. I used to think that cities were storehouses of human wisdom and knowledge, but now I realize how arrogant I was to think that. The accumulated history of remote, outlying regions and the wisdom of nature are far richer and deeper than what we have in the city. That’s why the ‘paradise’ room contains works that depict a world closer to nature.”
The highlight of the exhibition is a radiant painting that depicts a group of people in Japanese attire dancing in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Based on a scene that Takano saw in her dreams, this work portrays a hybrid festival atmosphere where Eastern and Western cultures mingle, featuring innovative kimono designs and patterns that also incorporate Islamic motifs within them. The flat perspective and technique also found in nihonga painting and anime that distinguishes her paintings is combined here with Western perspective, creating a complex sensation of depth and dynamism within the pictorial space.
“All life can live together peacefully”, which depicts a group of girls surrounded by animals, and “Hommage a l’homme au chapeau”, based on Takano’s interactions with the “hat man”, an outsider artist from Yokohama whom she respects, are among some of the works that demonstrate an awareness of a period of transition, where a consciousness preoccupied by material desires begins to migrate towards the realm of paradise.
At first glance, these works seem to deploy many motifs that Takano has used in the past. Her decision to depict scenes of paradise in her new paintings, however, was naturally something that was profoundly influenced by her experience of March 11, 2011. As Takano recalls, the process of going through the psychological shifts that led to this result was also a long one.
“Until I experienced the earthquake, I was living a life that was fairly pleasant. Painting, too, was something that I could pursue according to my own sensibilities, in a way that made me feel comfortable. Ever since, however, I feel as if I have been forced to make some changes at a very fundamental level – that I somehow have an obligation to confront my practice with a strong urge to create more paintings.”
The earthquake made a significant and varied emotional impact on the Japanese people. For Takano, it affected not just her attitude to making art, but also prompted her to question her own way of life. The result, she reveals, was a reassessment of her entire previous life. She gave up meat and turned vegetarian, and started to practice meditation.
“No matter where to try to escape, you’ll never know what will happen, and when. There’s nothing you can do about this, either. So the only thing you can do is to live in a place you like, while trying to grow as a person.” According to Takano, her first attempts to learn karate and ancient Japanese martial arts were responsible for her initial awakening. Witnessing firsthand the supernatural powers of expert practitioners, she realized that the wisdom and knowledge of our predecessors are gifts that originally came from nature. Human beings are not antagonistic rivals to nature, but rather products of it. We cannot live without relying on the wisdom of that nature. The wisdom and sense of sexual freedom cultivated in Japan’s rural landscapes are also things that we become acquainted with through books. Perhaps it is that modern rationalism has reached a dead end. All these things seem to be related to the events surrounding March 11.
Somewhere along the way, the conversation turned towards the subject of Indian philosophy. Takano used to practice yoga, and became fascinated by the books of the yogi and guru Paramahansa Yogananda. “When I read his books and works like the Ramayana, it seemed as if the roots of what I used to feel could all be found in their pages.” Poring over sacred Hindu texts sheds light on the philosophy of peace and non-violence that prohibits the destruction of life, as well as its more scientific aspects, which understand civilizations and the universe in terms of vast cycles. The sci-fi worlds that Takano indulged since her childhood were influenced not so much by fiction. Rather, it was Indian philosophy, discussed in real terms, which had a huge impact on these creations, as if the various pieces of a puzzle that seemed to be fragmentary and disconnected became integrated into a single, sprawling narrative. This series of awakenings also exerted an influence on Takano’s work, and prompted her to shift from using acrylic to oil paint, which allows for better brush feel.
“When I meditate, a feeling of happiness and calm comes over my inner being. This eventually led me to think that if our inner lives could attain peace, so would the world. Previously, all I did was to paint the images that came into my head. I’m not sure why I did that, but I finally feel as if I have managed to reach a certain state of bliss. I would be delighted if people looked at my work and took an interest in similar things. If only people would read the Indian scriptures, which hope for peace among all living things, perhaps things like suicide would disappear.”
I think Aya Takano would rather float than walk; she’s not that fond of gravity – it’s too bossy, reductive and earth-bound. The girl-women who populate her paintings and drawings embody her predilections. They’re as comfortable flying as they are unselfconscious about their occasional nakedness; they live in a universe lit by stars and glowing, other-worldly flowers and are as at home on the moon as they are on a building site or a boudoir. These creatures are never lonely; I imagine they’re as fluent conversing with animals (many of them mysterious breeds and species) as they are with each other. The only unfamiliar thing in their world is a lack of logic, but it doesn’t seem to matter: everyone gets along fine without it.
Despite being inspired by science fiction and comic books (especially by Osamu Tezuka), Paul Gaugin, Gustave Klimt, Edouard Manet, the Surrealists, the Impressionists and Yayoi Kusama (among others), Aya Takano’s wild imagination is uniquely her own. She talks about making art in almost purely visceral, even mystical terms; art, for her, is a matter of transcendent experience. Speaking, for example, of Kusama’s effect on her development as an artist, Takano said: ‘The first time I saw her work it was like seeing the universe, dark with white spots. Looking at her work isn’t an interaction with the mind but with the whole body responding – my whole body responding.’ When she was a child, she saw art for the first time, ‘had an electric shock and realized I really wanted to be a painter.’ While still very young, she read stories in her father’s library about a character flying to space thanks to an erotic force. Takano’s response was an orgasmic epiphany. ‘Science-fiction’ she said in a recent documentary about her and her work, Aya Takano, Towards Eternity, ‘made me realize there is an existence beyond reality, something that transcends my existence. When I read these books I had a kind of orgasm because I felt so good. I feel transported by these stories. Before I had a sexual relationship I thought that what I was experiencing was an orgasm, but I realized after that it was something different. The orgasm I experienced with science fiction was much stronger. I wish that everyone could feel this orgasm, which goes beyond the body.’ She realized that the world was full of infinite possible scenarios; the books she read were full of ‘descriptions of rocks with strange forms, cadavers of unknown creatures.’ Touched by the beauty of stars, she made a decision: to create myriad, imaginative worlds in her paintings and drawing – worlds that to her feel utterly real, and which she hopes will help her audience transcend the day-to-day repetition of their lives. Her art is her ticket to fly, to travel through the universe, to resist the trappings of conventional morality. She wants to ‘live in my paintings’, in order to recreate the pleasure she felt when ‘looking at clouds with an extraordinary shape or reading a science-fiction book.’ Art makes her feel ‘something very strong, much stronger than real sexual relationships.’
Aside from animals and depictions of heterosexual sex, girl-women who inhabit a shape-shifting, often psychedelic environment populate Aya Takano’s paintings and works on paper. They’re all of a similar physical type: slightly supernatural beings who seem to have – possibly momentarily – morphed into insect-like humans. Like a cross between Japanese manga-style cartoons, and quattrocento virgins, they’re tall, with long, thin limbs, tiny breasts, heart-shaped faces, voluptuous hair, flower-bud mouths and enormous, unblinking eyes – eyes so big, in fact, that they surely must see everything in their orbit. None of them have noses; smelling, it would appear, has been discarded in favour of the more important senses, seeing, feeling and touching; as for breathing, these characters don’t have a problem with it – they’re as relaxed in the thin atmosphere of outer space – Uranus, say, or Jupiter – as they are in the polluted denizens of Tokyo. Despite their physical fragility, however, these girl-women do not seem particularly weak, vulnerable or virginal: they travel tirelessly through the universe, enjoying each other’s company, occasionally stopping to work, eat or rest. When dressed, they’re clothed in hip, contemporary Japanese fashions, although sometimes they appear in traditional Japanese clothes; kimonos, with elaborate hairdos and dainty shoes. Now and then they kiss and fondle each other, surrounded by complicit animals and the friendly earth, but their eroticism is shot through with a kind of wonder or bewilderment: as if they’re astonished to have found themselves experiencing such intimacy, such strange, sensual contact. (Speaking about her attitude to depicting erotic couplings, Takano has said: ‘I cannot talk about universal pleasure, I can only talk about the pleasure I know as a woman. I cannot talk about the pleasure that a man feels. I don’t want to lie and pretend to know what men feel, but perhaps a man who has a feminine sensibility can understand a woman’s pleasure.)
Takano’s girl-women have been depicted working on a building site, at a fairground or traveling through the night sky, strolling on clouds, falling asleep, or zooming through the stars, high above skyscrapers, regaled with flowers, in gauzy cloth, running down streets pursued by giant, alien animals. They seem to like birds, airplanes, eating, kissing, picnics, ice-skating, chilling out and taking their clothes off. They make it clear they’re fond of the air on their skin; even at ice-rinks they don’t seem to feel the cold (perhaps star-light is warmer than we think.) As if to emphasize their extreme sensitivity, their white skin is often shaded a soft pink at their extremities: on their elbows, say, or knees and fingertips. Takano has said that she is ‘inspired by a French illustrator called Georges Barbier who would colour in red the extremes of his character’s body parts. I could also say that the redness accentuates the effect of a body not altogether finished growing or in development.’ Whatever her subject-matter, Takano’s colours remain delicate, nuanced and atmospheric – at times, their dense, chalky surfaces and areas of monochromatic richness recall frescos. Like nature made flesh, birds and skies morph from soft, skin-like pinks, cats and clouds can be formed from bruised and muted blues, the stars above cities twinkle through a grubby haze, clouds hover like stained moustaches and yellow birds interrupt indigo nights.
There is no hierarchy in Takano’s work, or life, between humans, animals or aliens; one, in fact, often morphs into the other. In this world categories are arbitrary and interchangeable – animals, especially, are our fellow travelers. In a recent interview, (and speaking while holding her small, affectionate pug dog), when asked about how she might imagine her pictures being read, she replied: ‘I’ve never been that pre-occupied by my public. Even if it’s a cat or a non-human I hope it will appreciate my work.’ Of the various characters in her work (who I suspect she thinks of as friends) she says: ‘They are transforming themselves into animals or insects. I really like to integrate different types of animals; animals with weird shapes. When I observe the strange creatures in books, I am very surprised because reality goes beyond my imagination. This is a rat that doesn’t have any body hair, and that’s a jellyfish that’s called bad fish, it really exists.’ However, even a ‘bad fish’ is treated generously by the artist; its expression looks more melancholy and misunderstood than malevolent; soft, sensual, sad.
Despite the exquisite detail of individual pictures, Takano’s oeuvre seems less concerned with individual resolution or closure that with an ongoing, multi-tendrilled visual story that weaves from picture to picture. The titles the artist employs reinforce such a reading: they’re like haikus, tiny narratives that describe intimate, autobiographical scenarios – Takano is an artist who is not familiar with self-censorship. For example, the pen and watercolour image, The first time I had an orgasm was with a person with a curved penis. We talked about how well we fit together (2006) depicts a naked girl sitting on top of a boy, her vagina near his face, touching his pink, curved penis, her expression lit with wonderment. They seem to be floating through space, on patterned cloth, united and self-sufficient in their togetherness. In Let’s put honey on cheese and apples and eat them / what is born and emerges from that (2007) two girls gleefully picnic on a giant block of cheese. And in the beautifully titled, enormous acrylic painting, The wind came. The vast sky was a light blue. She sees a world that envelops the entire stratosphere (2007) six girls, in various states of undress, look out at their audience as if they have momentarily paused in their play. They’re on a large cloud, high in the sky, littered with umbrellas and shoes, surrounded by star-bursts, birds and planes. The sky is a limpid, dreamy blue. It’s as if we’ve interrupted these astral urchins in some secret, pleasurable activity – precisely what it is, we’ll never know – these are pictures that respect the secrets they hint at. In Summoning her owls, she looked yonder. The buildings shone (2007) two of the girl-women have traveled back to earth, to a riverbank on the edge of a giant metropolis. One of the girls reclines on the earth in her underpants, a white bird perched comfortably on her shoulder. She is accompanied by another girl, who has a star in her hair, a blue cat on her shoulder, a goldfish (or, at least, some kind of water animal) on her arm and a large owl, who is hovering above her. In the distance are a ship, a ferris wheel, skyscrapers and the moon, but these girls are touching the earth so lightly, I doubt that they have noticed much outside of their own orbit. The most obvious thing to say about these scenarios would be to describe them as dreamlike – which is, however, too easy a conclusion. They’re the result of reveries, experienced when fully awake; they’re what can happen when an alert imagination remains responsive the world it finds itself in. For example, recently, Takano moved to a studio that has a view of the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo. She heard of a waste-storage facility on the nearby Island of Dreams (was an artist ever in a more aptly titled environment?). Garbage dumps inevitably found their way into her work, but unlike in a dream, where we have no control of the direction a story will take, Takano made every element of her pictures do as she told them.
Aya Takano’s paintings and works on paper tread a curious line; on the one hand, they’re vivid, very 21st objects, fuelled by the glut of images spawned by popular culture’s speed, voracious imagination, fluid relationship to history and hunger for transformation; on the other hand, they’re beautifully crafted examples of the possibilities of illusion and play that painting has excelled in for centuries. In this, Takano is, indeed, a traveler in space and time; she moves from century to century and planet to planet, with the speed of her pen and paintbrush. She’s also an optimist; there is always, she seems to imply, somewhere to go (another time, another place) if escape is what you need, but she’s not just talking about earthbound possibilities. Aya Takano’s imagination is her own private space ship and she’s happy to take you with her.
All quotes taken from the film, Aya Takano, Towards Eternity, by Hélène Sevaux.
by Akiko Miki
“I wanted to escape from all the gravity that restrains me. I wanted freedom…”
Modified Japonisme and a Science Fiction sensibility are often quoted as the main characteristics of Aya Takano’s artwork—and if her 2006 exhibition at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon was exemplary of the former, her show “Toward Eternity” is certainly a foray into the latter, where through new technical approaches she has succeeded into creating an even more fantastic vision.
The opening words are from a book by Takano in which she writes about SF novels in comic form; but the longing they express is visually pursued in this exhibition. As an observer moving from the first room of drawings portraying everyday scenes, to the second room where triangular and round paintings signify a departure to another world (or dimension), through the last room, where star-shaped paintings adorn the ceiling and evoke even a religious atmosphere, one has the simulated experience of bobbing one’s way through a space of opposites: city and nature, ocean/earth/sky/space, human/aniAya TAKANOmal/bird/bug, man/woman, child/adult, ordinary/extraordinary, various concepts of time and period, cuteness and ferocity, secularity and religiousness. In particular, her installation of irregular-shaped canvases throughout the space seems to take the fantasy world from the intimate surfaces of her drawings and inflate it into the larger exhibition space, roping us into her grandiose story.
Takano says that she thought of the Sistine Chapel while creating the final room. In that case, do the drawings partially represent the creation of heaven and earth, and are the half-naked girls, if not priestesses from the days of yore, priestesses of the future? The well-balanced proportionality, sensuality and orderly surfaces of Michelangelo’s portraits have, however, disappeared completely—instead we find a world both flat and skewed, one that more resembles medieval fresco paintings. Her characters are both human and non-human, both holy and evil, and more myth than reality, and in this way are reminiscent of the characters and stories from the 1970s golden age of shōjo manga (girls comics), in particular Keiko Takemiya’s Izarōn Densetsu (‘Legend of Izaron’) and Ryoko Yamagishi’s Hiizuru Tokoro no Tenshi (‘Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun’). Takano’s world is, however, more secular, even uncomfortably racy at times. While these manga artists of the 70s established escapist environments and created their own sanctuaries, and by doing so created networks of salvation to rescue teenage girls from the “gravity” of social constraints and questions of self-existence, Takano, by inserting daydream-like landscapes into her paintings of the modern city, manages to perceive the ordinary through a different lens, and proposes the development of the imagination as a means of release from the very same “gravity.”
In this exhibition, eternity is not an interminable length of time. Instead, Takano suggests that it is a vision that surpasses the reason of the real world. That this vision takes the form of a sharply clairvoyant and sensitive portrayal of “Wonderland Japan” as perceived by a foreigner (or perhaps an extraterrestrial?) is fascinating.
An extract from the catalogue on the exhibition "Aya Takano. " at Museum for Contemporary Art, Lyon, in 2006
Aya Takano was born in 1976, the high-noon of disco, dawn of punk, the year Wozniak and Jobs formed the Apple Computer Company and Honda Accord was introduced into the West (in Canada), a few years after an OPEC embargo crippled Japan, seven years before the Sony Walkman and the computer mouse, and right at the beginning of the transformation of life through electronics. As a young adult she became affiliated with artist-curator-businessman Takashi Murakami (born, 1962), whose Hiropon factory (slang for heroin), a Warhol-styled studio, now called Kaikai-kiki, was created on the lines of a management company and has since become a veritable art corporation, churning out printed matter and art merchandise of every sort, including clothing and accessories for designers, while supporting the gallery and museum shows of its artists. According to Murakami the Japanese have never separated art and commerce like the West does. There aren’t Western-style museums and art is mostly exhibited in malls and stores; so they situate it closer to entertainment than to philosophy or ideology, and of course fully integrate commercial imagery like manga cartoons, which means literally, whimsical pictures, and animation films and videos, which they call anime, into their art.
Murakami put together an exhibition in 2000, called Superflat, with himself (under his pseudonym DOB), Takano, and Yoshitoma Nara, among others. He explained “superflat” as a “flattening” of life, and art, by commerce. He clearly intended something different from the way we Westerners associate the word “flat” with the surface plane of a canvas and the specialized developments of art in our history.
In the 1950s abstract and monochrome painters like Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella, and anyone using a ”hard edge” style, were obsessed with a formal idea about flat, non-illusionistic, contemplative paintings. They painted one-color surfaces and created abstract patterns based on grids or any device that would make paintings seem visually flat. French artists called their version of it “support-surface.” In the same period, a branch of Western artists investigated what they called “popular culture.” Richard Hamilton, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and later Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Mel Ramos, and Ed Ruscha introduced commercial images into the iconicity of flatness, flat images on flat surfaces. Lichtenstein claimed to invoke the worst of all art forms, commercial art. Murakami, as well as, Takano are as much the children of Western pop art as anyone born since the birth of television. But their relationship to popular cultural traces further back to their very different history.
During the Age of Reason, while Europe mapped and colonized the world, developed dictionaries and encyclopedia, built museums, revolutionized human rights, and created the industrial revolution, Japan was undergoing its own modernizing in what is the Tokugawa (now called Edo) period, circa 1600–1867, ending feudalism and beginning to nationalize its political system. Artists of the period produced affordable woodcut images of the ukiyo, or “floating” world—the geishas, kabuki actors, samurai, and prostitutes of the teahouses and theaters of Kyoto and Edo, now called Tokyo. Among the best known of the ukiyo-e artists was Hokusai (1760–1849). Many Japanese artists depicted unsanctioned, sexually explicit images called shunga (literally meaning “picture of spring,” a euphemism for the sexual depiction of lovers of every combination). Ukiyo was also an ironic illusion to a homophone that means “sorrowful world.” Its double meaning reflected the more complicated intentions of its artists whose styles later influenced European modernists like Monet, Dégas, and Whistler and remained common forms of representation in Japan well into the modern era when manga and anime evolved.
Takano based the works in this exhibition on the ukiyo-e and shunga styles. She has also reflected a contemporary Japanese transliteration of the Lolita complex, called lolicon, derived from Nabakov’s novel (published by the Olympia Press, in Paris, in 1955). That association ties Japanese manga back into a European model, furthering the criss-crossing of influences and styles from West to East and East to West, particularly as they have proliferated since the postwar years.
Styles come from the ineffable skies of genius, surprising us, tickling our brains with their newness in relation to things we already know. Once a style exists it becomes obvious and its sources are construed. Takano’s manga-like watercolors and paintings have been described as erotic, post-apocalyptic, science fiction fantasies. Thin, naked or nearly naked pre-pubescent gamines—noseless, East-West hybrids, common to the manga style, with big eyes, pouting lips, and long legs—are set in scenes that she co-opts from commercial images as well as the abstract flatness of paper and canvas. They echo shunga images, contemporary pornography, and science fiction from both East and West. And yet her style is Japanese through and through.
Many Westerners have read Juni’chiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1933), where he discusses the Japanese (prewar) distaste for electric wiring, their preference for shadow over light, for burnish and patina over high polished brilliance, and for indirect over direct lighting. Tanizaki’s claim that such a sensibility is genetically Japanese is not so removed from Murakami’s idea that art in Japan is kin to commerce. Their elaborate gift giving and complicated ways of saying ”No” are a reflection of an inbred indirectness, for which even commerce is an elaborate an art form very different from Western-style business. The Japanese also wear more eyeglasses per capita than any other population worldwide, and are among the deftest with their hands, especially the girls. Give one a sugar wrapper and she’ll transform it into a perfect origami bird, a paper geometry passed down over the ages.
Tanizaki couldn’t have predicted the Sony Walkman any more than Plato could have predicted cinema, though Plato did suggest that artifice would undermine truth. Still, their particular attention to handiwork, and their coordination of hands and eyes, influence their way of life, their tastefulness and discretion, the raw fish, electronic technologies, priestly fashions (Commes des garcons, Issey Miyake, etc.), the manga and anime styles, their art, film, and photography, their gimmicks and toys, and their cultural nationalism. But the changes Japan underwent in the postwar years, from an occupied nation to becoming a global force in the automobile, electronics, and fashion industries, reveals not only a capacity for resourcefulness and hard work, but also a redirection of its focus from the Orient to the Occident, within the sensory orientation of their own traditions.
(I was born in Yokohama, raised by three omah’s, and grew up surrounded by Japanese art, furniture, and cuisine. I fondly remember a toy car made from a can of Schlitz beer, turned inside out, painted pink. My father wore pornographic Shunga sweat towels when he worked in the yard. A good portion of the toys I had as well as a lot of other merchandise I grew up with was labeled “Made in Japan.” Until the 1973 OPEC embargo Japan held oil reserves to last for a period of only 24 hours. Their reaction to the crisis was immediate, and may have abetted their entry into the international automobile industry. In August of this year Toyota became the second largest automaker in the US, after General Motors, ahead of Ford.)
Murakami had every reason to consider the popular or commercial aspect of Japanese art; they had not yet evolved a separate art world or art market, and yet they have also adapted to ours. Typically, Takano adapted traditional styles to fit her artistic needs as a contemporary artist in a global art world. That she is an exception in her world and in ours is because of the quality, quantity, and consistency of her output, and because of the increasing commerce between our cultures.
As a writer I’m obliged to interpret. My memories and received information of Japan combine as a kind of accessory of my Western education. What comes to mind are the distorted perspectives of Medieval art, such as Giotto’s frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua; Chagall’s backgrounds and floating figures; Schiele’s neurotic nudes; Grosz’s horrific depictions; the strange, almost Gaudi-like watercolors of Hundertwasser; Peter Max’s psychedelic designs; Rita Ackerman‘s girly drawings—and a lot of the girly art from the late 1990s (Sadie Benning, Elizabeth Peyton, etc.). Though my list is diverse, it is far from complete. Yet a political agenda, like Giotto, posing his patron, Enrico Scrovegni, over the fires of hell in the Last Judgment scene (Will he fall?), a faux-naiveté like Hundertwasser’s, and the identifiable style of her manga-like gamines define her art.
I also think of Candy Christian from Terry Southern’s, Candy (1964), a ribald, pornographic novel modeled on Voltaire’s Candide, about a young naïve Wisconsin girl’s sexual adventures with grotesque lusting men, especially a humpback (“Your hump! Give me your hump,” Candy howls.). Takano is as likely to paint her nymphets (a Nabokov term) dressed as a cowgirl in an Arizona landscape, as a courtesan in a tearoom, as a driver at night, naked walking dogs in Tokyo, posing like Artemis or as a fashion victim, or having sex with men or another girl.
Takano’s style resists Western definition but clearly shows a kinship to the ukiyo-e and shunga styles. They also conjure Tankizaki’s reticent preference for shadows and the Japanese landscape, as well as the postwar global village’s fashion crazes, pop art, mass-market media, and what is possibly the most prolific industry in the Internet today, pornography. She even calls upon the “sorrows” of the floating world in her implication of lolicons, whom I think of as the dirty old men who chased Candy into a submission. Like Candy, but unlike Lolita, Takano’s nymphets accept their roles. And many of Takano’s scenes elicit (for me) a contemporary reflection similar to the dreamlike novels of Haruki Marakami and the science fiction of William Gibson, both crossover artists dreaming about the future through the present.
It’s an odd conundrum: explicit sex not intended to be sexy, enacted by mutant cartoons caught in the gangways between childhood and adulthood. I think of the caricatures on my father’s shunga towels, which he ritually wore as sweat bands but never seemed to look at in the same manner as I did with my luridly curious prepubescent eyes.
Takano’s images are graphic in every sense, flat in form, explicit in detail, but open to interpretation. The sex is shown in high relief, but their purpose is aesthetic rather than exploitive: to exhibit the speculative psychological distance of art, which is neither that of a child nor dirty old man, yet can easily subsume all characterization. Like many manga characters her girls don’t look Japanese, even though they are the stylized mutants of a Japanese industry as well known globally as Toyota. Now these oddly alluring automatons have made their way into our thinking, influencing us as much as we might have influenced the Japanese into conceiving them in the first place, bringing Takano’s universe into ours.