The Japanese artist Mr. (yes, the artist’s name is Mr.) paints big canvases that are vivid and sparkly and inhabited by wide-eyed anime characters. They are everything that the expression “Japanese Neo-Pop” implies: bright, flat images packed with references to consumer goods and the latest trends in manga.
Born in 1969, Mr. grew up during Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” period, and his work usually reflects the shiny surface of consumer culture.
But if you visit the exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum — the first solo exhibition of Mr.’s work in the United States — you will not be greeted with these vivacious images. First, you must walk through a huge installation of garbage.
A towering mound of trash looms in the center of the gallery, like some abstractly constructed beast. You are forced to walk on either side of it, through narrow alleyways. Magazines are stacked up to the ceiling, clothing hangs above you and plastic food containers are practically underfoot.
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To take it all in, you have to circle around and then reverse direction again to see the rest of the exhibition. The experience suggests both the cycle of urban waste and the natural disasters of 2011. The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan affected the artist deeply. He traveled to devastated areas, taking photographs and video footage that are part of this show.
As I emerged from the garbage installation, called “Give Me Your Wings — think different,” into the galleries filled with Mr.’s upbeat paintings, a sense of youthful exuberance grew, even as the undertones of waste and destruction persisted.
During a walk-through with the artist, he confirmed this duality, saying, “Underneath all this happy imagery, I have dark thoughts, especially after the disastrous events of 2011.” When considering what to donate to a charity auction, Mr. said, “I thought about making something that said, ‘We’re suffering. Everyone look at us.’ Instead, I decided to create very energetic young girls.”
These energetic young girls became a central focus in his work. They are archetypes of the concept of moe (which means “budding”) and, as they cavort, play guitar, and flip up their short skirts, they tap into a nostalgic longing for youth.
I see how they embody the hopeful title of the exhibition, “Live on,” and I get their appeal. But this very appeal — this allure — also makes me uncomfortable. I asked Mr. to help me understand the obsession with the schoolgirl type and those variations that seem to be sexualized. He was candid in his acknowledgment that sexuality can be seen as “part of that culture” and that “there are people who say, ‘please don’t draw girls in this way.’ ”
He went on to stress that part of the debate is rooted in a cultural “difference in viewpoint” and that for him and for many Japanese, these characters offer lessons about “companionship, friendship, and the conviction to speak out against injustice.”
It is easy to slip into this optimistic world, into the layers of saturated color, swirling hair, and slightly modified commercial products (Mr. tweaks characters and brand names to avoid copyright disputes, changing “Sony” to “Pony,” for example).
Fans of anime and manga will probably love reading each work for subtleties of expression and iconography. As a member of the otaku (geek) subculture, Mr. includes very specific trends and stylistic staples such as floating heads, sparkles and speech bubbles.
The obsessive nature of the work provides an abundance of fantasy that is immersive and pleasurable. But, with a wink, it also suggests that complete satisfaction or escapism can never be fully achieved.