“Japan’s Anime Sweeping the World” at the Nippon Gallery, New York
by Jonathan Goodman July 27, 2023
Curator Kyoko Sato, born in Japan but based in New York City for some twenty years, has a well-known name in the field of Japanese contemporary art studies. She maintains a world view, incorporating artists from America, whose esthetic alignment joins with modern and contemporary Japanese art–and indeed, she works with artists all over the world. At the same time, she has worked on a number of projects with Japanese businesses, including largest media corporations. Unusually, she is comfortable with contacting commercial sites for venues, even as her thematic interests are markedly creative, often to the point of being visionary. In “Japan’s Anime Sweeping the World,” her show set within the spacious gallery of the Nippon Club on West 57th Street in New York City, Sato is showing nine artists, several of them non-Japanese, working within the field:
Daniel Fishkin, Dragon76, Hiroki Otsuka, Jessica Luna, June Kim, Naruki Kukita, Reiner Heidorn, Richard Ford III, and Jake Price. The artists include a black American and a Korean comic artist, both of whom fit well into the show.
Sato is showing courage in bringing this group together, offering proof that the anime concept has become accepted as an international discipline. Anime began in Japan in the early 1900s as an extension of film-making. But the fact that the practice of drawing or painting images meant for animation has spread to the point where it is practiced nearly everywhere and, as I have said, by artists who are not Japanese. Some have tied anime practice to the bold, realistic, and fully polychromic woodcut prints made during Japan’s Edo Period (during the 18th and early 19rh century) –among the most famous artists were Hiroshige and Hokusai. These expressionist images covered a wide spectrum of themes, ranging from eroticism to physical conflict to exalted notions of nature.
As a curator, Sato did an excellent job of joining together artists from different place and backgrounds who in fact share an interest in the populist art genre. This show of anime inspired art is very good and demonstrates that the artists all are taken with the emotional directness and sharp colors of the genre, not to mention the bold themes adumbrated even two centuries after the movement’s highest moments were over.
Perhaps the major sticking point for a show as good as this has to do with the implicit populism of the genre. Anime is not an art to which the term “high culture” can be assigned, yet it takes a major place in the Japanese art history books, as well inspiring an ongoing wave of interest and practice. The broad terms of this art tend to emphasize dramatic emotion, communicating feeling to as wide an audience as possible. Such an approach brings up the question whether the Western terminology for levels of distinction–low, middle, and high art–work anymore; we recall that the Nippon Gallery exists on 57th Street, where not so long ago more than a few galleries of exceptionally reputation held sway. Indeed, the Nippon Gallery sits directly across from Carnegie Hall, the symphony space associated with at least a century of the best classical music in the world. Today, high cultures peacefully coexist, in this case across the street, with a populism many current artists embrace.
So, then, is it fair to call anime “high culture”? Or is the term a Western contrivance, oriented toward an unnecessary division of class rather than an accurate appraisal off accomplishment? These questions today have had a long history of debate, much of it fierce, in which high culture has been denounced for its elitist tendencies. But the situation is more complicated than that. Maybe the real truth has to do with the vagaries of achievement; certainly, we can praise culture even when it is turning its back on elevated motifs, especially should its achievement skillfully incorporate everyday life into art. (This has long been a major point of modernism’s appeal.) Now that, especially in America, we mistrust the intentions and design of high culture, not so much for esthetic reasons as for social ones, anime’s drive toward the demotic looks reasonable and can be inspired.
Thus, Sato’s claim on an art free of the implications of wealth or snobbery makes her sensitive to an art history and language that has refused social placement in favor of the immediacy of experience. This is exciting in the sense that all art, low or high, takes experience as the pedestal on which a work is built–even if populist art tends to emphasize the democratic nature of experience rather than the higher pedestal of something beautifully made. As a curator, Sato looks to bring artist together who share a common ground. The simplicity of anime, as redacted by a black American or a graffiti artist, implicitly takes on a greater suggestiveness than we might imagine, made possible by a willingness to keep art close to life–closer to life than to the imagination. Maybe anime’s ongoing popularity has to do with a general populist orientation that seems to be happening all over the world; this is not a time for aristocracy and high culture. Instead, as this show proves so well, anime offers a highly accessible art form, in which the art conveys a vision free of social status or hierarchies of wealth and power. Thus, anime is available to everyone.
Daniel Fishkin, Daxophone Garden, 2023, Assorted hardwoods
Daniel Fishkin, a young American artist, made several wooden sculptures this year, titled Daxophone Garden. Developed in the 1980s, the daxophone is an electronic wooden musical instrument has had become very popular with the Japanese. At the show’s opening, Fishkin played it a bit; the sounds coming out of the daxophone were exotic and strange. But the sculptures with the title mentioned above were not so exotic; they looked like wind chimes, with wooden pieces, some of them with openings, that hung from a string attached to a triangular support. Although the piece was clearly a sculpture, it looked like the individual, thin vertical elements were taken from the instrument itself.
Dragon76, Future Hip-Hop Samurai, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 48x48 in. | 121.9x121.9 cm
Dragon76, Japanese street artist, presented the acrylic painting Future Hip-Hop Samurai (2019), in which a figure with a dragon’s head sits on the right of the paintings. Multicolored, with complex forms that are difficult to interpret, the painting merges hip-hop culture with the figure of a samurai–a noble warrior deeply joined to the upper hierarchies of Japanese culture. Thin curls of white splay paint encircle the figure, whose demonic presence suggests considerable aggression. When matched with the overt dominations of hip hop, the figure, and the general atmosphere of the painting, come close to overwhelming. Maybe hip-hop is nearer to anime than we might think; the eclecticism animating this work becomes a recognition of how swiftly new culture can take on attributes of another culture, old or new. Both hip-hop and anime can be understood in light of a populist attitude toward, increasingly, culture in general. Current physical and visual rhythms are direct in order to reach as many people as possible.
Hiroki Otsuka, Backstage in New York, Vo.1, Episode 1, Page 23, rough drawing, 2019 ink jet print on paper, 17x1`1 in. | 43.1x27.9 cm
Hiroki Otsuka, Sumi-é 02, 2023, Sumi ink on paper, 12x9 in. | 30.4x22.8 cm
Hiroki Otsuka, also from Japan, does elegant pencil and sumi drawing figurative in nature. In one drawing, he has two vertical strips of four images, which stand next to each other. Both comic strips describe a rather roughly drawn head that changes in small ways from top to bottom. They feel like the single designs of an anime narration, and demonstrate a technical skill not found so easily in today’s international art culture. The head on the left looks like that of a long-haired young woman–a near cliche of anime imagery–while there is more variation regarding the figure on the right, almost as if the head was shape-shifting before our eyes. Called Backstage in New York (2019), it is described as a rough drawing, and so it is. Another drawing by Otsuka, called Sumi-e 02 (2023), the drawing, again highly realist, depicts a rather benign-looking orange octopus of considerable size, next to which we find a young Japanese woman in traditional Japanese dress, her hair slightly askew. The drawing makes no sense in its juxtaposition of a giant sea creature with a typically attractive anime siren. We can only surmise that the second drawing might refer to a narrative we don’t have full access to. Both works especially the latter of the two, suggest a Japanese realism, not only modern but international in nature.
Jessica Luna, Cosmo Dreaming, 2021, Digital print (Original: Black inks and colic markers), 4x6 in. | 10.1x15.2 cm
The Italian artist Jessica Luna is offering a digital print called Cosmo Dreaming (2021). Done in black and white, the image shows a short-haired girl sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship, with her helmet resting on her thighs. She is asleep, as the title of the image implies. To the girl’s left, in the middle of the print, is an expanse of two windows, beyond which we see a seemingly limitless expanse of black space containing stars. One assumes that Cosmo is sitting in the seat controlling the spaceship; there are consoles with knobs on either side of her. This scenario looks very much like a picture true to anime; this young woman is resting in the midst of unfathomable space. Cosmo’s body, set in a massive void, is, at the same time, a declaration of humanity in an unbordered site. Another print, titled Meet Me in Space (2021), shows someone who looks like Cosmo, in an oversize space helmet with a clear face guard, and wearing a space suit designed like a track suit, floating in the dark lonely world a nearly infinite outer space. This kind of drawing emphasizes isolation and the great expanse of space, but it also notes technological ties to the civilization that bright her there–thick and thin wires and tubes, issuing from the back of her space suit, demonstrate just how necessary human intervention is to survive the dire straits of dark matter. Human support is needed. Both images convey the frailty of human existence in the great, limitless reaches of a darkness we have yet to fully understand. Still other prints, of impossibly large-eyed girls, whose age begins with the onset of late adolescence, seem to be taken with activities associated with Asian adolescence–their perception of themselves and the world seems naive. The girl’s enormous eyes communicate a vulnerability that must also be described as more than slightly vacuous–as if they believed in little beyond the immediate emotional expression of their own existence.
One hesitates to characterize anime as generally superficial, especially now that it is serving as a window for the thinking of a generation who took the attributes of an artificial existence and gave them metaphysical weight anime’s origins go back over a hundred years; it is by now an accepted genre of art with an extensive history. Still, its emotional and intellectual life can be criticized as shallow; it is an art close to the comic book, and does not pretend to be much more (despite the claims of populist critics). Yet it does communicate an innocence in a very cynical time–and sometimes more than that, as we see in the menace of Nara’s figures. Only the vantage point of years in the future will allow us to make sense of a popular art taken so seriously.
June Kim, Mackerel Sashimi, 2013, Digital art, 18x12 in. | 45.7x30.4 cm
June Kim, a Korean artist, has presented a series of comic strips that go under the title Mackerel Sashimi (2013). The story concerns the creation of mackerel sashimi and its subsequent precedent as a food. Kim also has a digital art work called Egg Show (2017), a print with the title in capitals at the top, followed by four horizontal rows of three eggs, each decorated differently, as though we were watching a fashion walk of eggs embellished in unusual ways. The background is a bright yellow, as if the paper were covered by the yolk of an egg. Kim’s drawings and comic strips may seem simple, but in fact she is true to anime’s spirit, its close joining often with narrative and a simplicity greater than what it seems the simple forms she uses, along with the simple language in the speech balloons, enable everyone to enjoy the artist's story. And the eggs are slightly comic in their fashion statements, which individualize them and, at the same time, poke fun at clothing as decoration. Kim, being Korean rather than Japanese, makes her work within a tradition that does not truly belong to her own background. But the same can be said for the Americans working within the genre. Anime, much like the esteemed practice of abstract expressionism, has become nearly a way of life as much as an art style. Its demotic orientation demonstrates a close affinity with the way much culture is practiced now, its elements of genial accessibility.
Naruki Kukita, Urashima Tarō and Princesses Otohime, 2023, Oil on linen, 48x36 in. | 121.9x91.4 cm
Naruki Kukita, a Japanese artist, has painted a portrait of Urashima Taro, a protagonist in a fairy tale who, for acts of bravery, is rewarded by the entertainment skills of Princess Otohime –in the version by Kukita, two presentations of the Princess dance naked before Taro, who is without clothes himself. Three hold hands, and a small turtle, very much out of popular culture, looks at the viewer from its corner on the lower left. In the valley behind this mildly erotic scene, the divide between rocks and open fall resulting from the rock’s separation are created using a deep dark blue, in sharp contrast to the brown body of Taro and the two pale women. Nymphs Satyr (1873), by Bouguereau, a scene in which young, beautiful women encircle a man, looks very much like the composition responsible for the later work by Kukita. The tale indicates that Taro was rewarded for rescuing a turtle and brought to a place beneath the sea to be presented with the entertainments of the princess. Suddenly, when Taro returns from the sea, the duration of time he spent there, which he supposed was only several days, turns out to be 100 years. The story feels like an exercise in high behavior, erotic charm, and the possibility of a harsh reality setting in–at least as it is presented by Kukita.
Reiner Heidorn, Hola Pendejo, 2021, Oil on canvas, 27.5x35.4 in. | 70x90 cm
Reiner Heidorn, who comes from Bavaria, Germany, is represented by two vaguely alien portraits, both of which were painted in 2021: Hola Pendejo and Pondidiver, both of which look like studies of hybrid human/otherworldly people. The Hola Pendejo painting looks like a young girl, but also a fairly with large rabbit ears, thin black antennae, and a mask and black eyes. With her black hair and straight mouth hinting at a grin, the figure manages to be both benign and menacing in the same moment. Dots are splattered across the painting, including the light jade-blue background. In Pondidiver, a slightly older female head, with the signature large, dark anime eyes, stares back at her viewers with something akin to menace. Her lower face is completely obscured by white splotches and dots on dark green. Both faces are curious, being neither completely human nor alien.
Richard Ford III (RF3RD), Layers, Searcher, 2023, Acrylic gouache, spray paint on canvas 24x18 in. | 60.9x45.7 cm
Richard Ford III (RF3RD), a black American anime painter, offers the striking picture of a young black woman in a colorful space suit, mostly pink and blue. Gray restraints cross over her upper shoulders. She is attractive, with a free hairstyle, and looks at us with a bit of apprehension. The painting, called Layers, Searcher (2023), appears to address the proximity of outer space that is often a theme of anime art. Another painting, called Mother (2023), shows an older black woman with two clouds of bright yellow hair separated by a part and weaning. She also wears large, round yellow earrings. The paraphernalia surrounding her is hard to describe, consisting of multiple items, many seemingly industrial. The woman might be riding a motorcycle; the cans and spheres surrounding her might be a jumble of metal refuse. In any case, the woman returns the viewer’s gaze without a shred of doubt, bordering on an aggressive stance. To see black women incorporated into the traditionally Japanese world of anime is to see this art genre expanded into a multiracial setting, proving that the idiom of contemporary art, populist art especially, is now open to persons of all backgrounds, no matter the subject matter addressed. In fact, anime’s joining of realism to describe scenarios decidedly otherworldly or beyond reason gives the genre its curious weight.
Sato’s Japanese background clearly plays a large role in the arrangement of this show, but she is also a New Yorker, and therefore open to the hundreds of cultures existing in the city. Not everyone is an anime artist, but the esthetic freedom that results from so many ways of living life is central to her outlook. Thus, anime, Japanese in its origins, still reflects the culture that created it. But additions have expanded its range.
We are now living in a time when the computer image has captured our interest, but that means we are making art within a technological bubble. How does one humanize the genre’s technological production? Maybe including as many versions of the same ideas as possible, something that Sato has tried to do in this relatively small show. It is true enough that the theme and the drawing style reject even the slightest hint of classicism, but it can also be said that anime’s broad acceptance of the old and the new, its ties to film, and its light-handed treatment of contemporary themes and imagistic styles, all indicate a willingness to internalize what is now available.
While we can hardly mistake anime for the drawings of Delacroix, which are widely romantic, we can recognize that art goes back and forth bridging the old and the new. Anime’s openness toward life, along with its slightly rigid views of how experience should be drawn, may become, in its own way, a classical language of its own. I mean by this a truthful rather than a theatrical visual stance. It is too soon to say where the genre will go, but the truth is that it is still moving.