Painting over old Edo

Yamaguchi gives new life to old works

by Ken Kawashima

As a child, Akira Yamaguchi spent countless hours hunched over his desk, doodling the many space-age rocket ships and humanoids he encountered in his bedroom anime collection. The young artist, however, also remembers feeling a sense of guilt whenever he attempted to mimic more traditional Japanese art forms by past masters like Hokusai.

“It’s probably a uniquely Japanese way of thinking, but I felt it was blasphemy,” says Yamaguchi, 35. “For me, classical art was something for the elite and not to be meddled with by commoners like me.”

This underdog mentality towards the established art of his homeland, however, would in fact be the catalyst for Yamaguchi’s own career. He developed a radical approach to Japanese art that combined Western oil painting techniques with a traditional compositional style, originating in Kyoto, known as Yamato-e (literally, Japanese images).

During his college years, he began to obsessively copy and then re-create old-school Japanese landscapes and portraits, which he then infused with a renegade parade of anachronistic robot-androids, motorbikes and steel buildings.

The sheer technical virtuosity he demonstrated in his strikingly authentic replicas of old-school art stamped over with the artist’s playful, almost childlike sense of humor resulted in a dynamic new visual style that seems at once nostalgically Japanese, yet totally out of this world.

Today, the painter is getting close to attaining celebrity status. Everyone, it seems — from NHK TV and Roppongi Hills to Tokyo clubland vets, UFO — wants him to design their poster ads and CD jackets.

This year, his media exposure reached a peak when a guest appearance on Beat Takeshi’s TV show “Daredemo Picasso (Anybody can be Picasso)” prompted the Mitsukoshi department store to launch a series of TV ads featuring Yamaguchi’s watercolor paintings depicting the new Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi building in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward.

The in-demand artist is currently displaying five of his most recent paintings at Tokyo’s Mizuma Art Gallery in Nakameguro in an admission-free exhibition, somewhat ironically titled “Bairan Kana (Shall we Buy?)” until Jan. 15. Despite the minimal display of works, however, “Bairan Kana” showcases Yamaguchi’s kaleidoscopic tastes in imagery that leaps through styles and time zones spanning the art of the Momoyama Period (1573-1603) to Brueghel and Reiji Matsumoto’s sci-fi manga, often in a single work.

“One of the tasks of contemporary artists is to give new life to dead works,” says Yamaguchi in his self-titled debut book of paintings, recently published by the University of Tokyo Press. “I see myself as creating new paper charms to summon the latter-day gods.”

The painstaking detail with which he crafts each of his so-called “charms” is often beguiling (and his new book includes a plastic magnifying glass to help the reader see it all in its full glory). In one work titled “Muzan no suke,” Yamaguchi has constructed four dark, inky Yamato-e landscape panels swarming with samurai warriors that ABC unfolds in storytelling fashion from right to left.

The visual tale depicts the chain of events that follows. When one master swordsmith’s prized sword falls into the hands of a commoner, the wannabe warrior begins a wild killing spree across three canvases (and numerous period settings), leaving behind dozens of dead samurai and police-car wreckages in his wake.

The final canvas shows the hunted-down swordsman finally using the weapon to slice himself up in a fit of guilt-ridden insanity. Yamaguchi, however, says it’s not necessarily an anti-war statement.

“I wanted to illustrate how society often allows the wrong tools to be used by the wrong people, with catastrophic results,” he explains. “Modern-day problems like garbage, for example, prove the human race isn’t even capable of handling tin cans.”

Born in Tokyo in 1969, Yamaguchi, the eldest of two brothers, grew up in Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture. After graduating from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music with an MA in 1996, Yamaguchi first found recognition in local art circles a year later when he participated in a small group exhibition dubbed “Kotatsu School” with former university buddy and artist Makoto Aida at Mizuma Art Gallery.

The show, which created a minor sensation in the media, enabled Yamaguchi to hold an annual solo exhibition at the Tokyo gallery ever since. Certainly, with all the recent media coverage and his seemingly boundless creativity, though, one would expect him to be in contact with the so-called masters of traditional Japanese art by now. Yamaguchi, however, seems to shudder at the thought.

“No, no, that would be too much of a hassle,” he says. “After all, I’m simply sampling the classics using oil paint.”

Despite his now bankable success, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken Yamaguchi in many ways still seems to wear all the humble mannerisms of a struggling artist.

An interesting, if not revealing, artifact near the end of the gallery is a series of diary-like comic sketches portraying Yamaguchi’s personal life. In one entry, the artist muses: With the burden of a wife and a child on the way, what sort of future is there for a painter already in their 30s? The next few illustrations depict the artist involved in various moneymaking schemes: as an art-school teacher; a road digger; and even testing his luck with stocks and shares and lottery tickets.

At any rate, most of his peers, including the editors of the influential art monthly Bijutsu Techo who ran a cover story on Yamaguchi and Aida this year, see him as no less than a future leader for the Japanese art scene itself. “Whatever direction Yamaguchi chooses to go, there’s bound to be an artistic ‘happening’ awaiting him,” the article says. “In many ways, it’s pretty much up to him.”

But can a renegade artist truly be the voice of a new generation? Yamaguchi laughs mildly at this thought. “There’s certainly a lot of pressure,” he says. “But then again, I’ve always felt a stronger bond with the country-born artists from centuries ago, who moved into the city and simply emulated the famous masters in order to make a living.” After a slight pause, he adds, “I just draw whatever comes to mind. The rest, I’ll learn to live with.”