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Fusions of Past and Future

Akira Yamaguchi, using traditional Japanese-style painting techniques, depicts samurai warriors and contemporary people together in landscapes where skyscrapers and Edo Period architecture intermingle. The artist, whose works have attracted widespread acclaim for their distinctive style, spoke about the spirit of subculture.

Akira Yamaguchi is a leading artist in Japan’s art world. In the 2000s his signature works People Making Things and Narita International Airport: View of Flourishing New South Wing created shockwaves. His painting style—which fuses the past, present, future, imagination, humor and sarcasm into painterly touches evoking Yamato-e and ukiyo-e—slashed open a path to the forefront of modern art. His battle scenes featuring motorcycle horses and cyborg samurai, and his erotic Buddhist paintings have delighted fans everywhere.

On the other hand, when his career and awards are examined, Yamaguchi appears to be an traditionalist as a Japanese artist. After graduating from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the Japanese art world—the Tokyo National University of the Arts—with a master’s degree in oil painting, he was the runner-up in the fourth Okamoto Taro Memorial Award for Contemporary Art contest, and won the 12th Kobayashi Hideo Award for his book Hen na Nihon Bijutsushi (published by Shodensha in 2012). He was one of seventeen artists worldwide selected to design official art posters for the FIFA World Cup Tournament South Africa 2010 as well, and has been named the primary artist for Dogo Art 2016, an art festival to be held at Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture, said to be the oldest hot spring spa in Japan. He is also scheduled to hold another solo exhibition this fall. All of these events are eagerly awaited by fans of his works throughout the world. As an established and popular master artist, is it appropriate to classify him as a subcultural figure?

Yamaguchi responds in a consistently calm and easygoing manner. “I am not particularly interested in how I am categorized. Whether I am in the subculture or part of mainstream culture is just a matter of domain—whether I am outside the fence or inside it.”

Also highly acclaimed as an art theoretician, Yamaguchi untangles the nuances of the history of art in Japan and abroad. “In the history of post-Meiji Restoration Japanese art, there has been a tendency to move from one particular style taken from abroad to another, without any sense of continuity between them. By contrast, in the West there is a layering process of superimposition, in which existing forms would be disavowed and then renewed.”

These structural differences between Japan and the West were the truths that compelled him to redirect his creativity during his student years. While Yamaguchi’s Japanese painterly style distinguishes him, he majored not in Japanese painting but oil painting.

“The oil painting styles I studied as an art student at university were a form of painting imported from the West during the Meiji Period. A Western method is only fully realized when one possesses a Western spirit, so when a Japanese person paints in that style and some form of Japanese spiritual element were to appear—for example, a Rinpa school style—it would be deemed improper and corrected. I realized that such a process was, in the end, merely an act of imitation, and experienced an impending sense of crisis that we would never attain our own methods of expression.”

“The act of ‘misreading’ something imported from outside one’s own domain also becomes a refinement of the imported culture,” he adds. Going back to the styles of the past to which he hoped to apply his “power of misreading,” Yamaguchi began to immerse himself in painting based on the past and thoroughly indoctrinate himself in those methods. He terms this period of practice “an exercise in form.”

“I allowed my hand to imitate the styles superficially until it achieved comprehension,”
Yamaguchi says, revealing his inner feelings as an artist. “I think of it as expressing techniques of the past through a contemporary sensibility, a struggle just like what painters of the recent past were working to accomplish using oil painting. It is not at all something that can be indulged in. I am in pursuit of perfect beauty, and I work in the hope of someday reaching that pinnacle.” He is against facile sampling of the past and simple-minded suturing of the new and the old, and is not one to rest in his quest for beauty.

“I only see the path ahead of me,” he says simply. The goals: to avoid becoming trapped in old genres, to resist withering away, and to struggle and escape from the enclosures of an ever-expanding domain. Perhaps subcultures are a display of such wildness at heart. In that sense, Yamaguchi—who already refuses to live peacefully or compromise himself within existing forms—is an embodiment of the subcultural spirit.

1: People Making Things (2001)
oil on canvas
112 x 372 cm
photo by KIOKU Keizo
©YAMAGUCHI Akira, Courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery

2: Narita International Airport: View of Flourishing New South Wing (2005)
pen, watercolor on paper
96.5 x 76 cm
©YAMAGUCHI Akira, Courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery