'Watanabe Toyoshige: Playing with ONI'

by Naoko Kuramochi

The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura

Closes Aug. 29

Demon, ogre, troll — in English, the Japanese oni has been given many names and is usually described as a mythical creature that is either malevolent or a punisher of bad deeds. For “Playing wih ONI,” at The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, however, Toyoshige Watanabe’s paintings embody a different kind of demon — that of human inner struggle.

For Watanabe, the oni represents the artist’s anger and dissatisfaction with society. In these 30 new works, he breaks with tradition by omitting depictions of the oni’s horned head and focusing only on the movement of his hands and feet. Though the oni are two-dimensional silhouettes, they are attacked by brightly colored, unknown entities in gold, blue, red and yellow, which swirl around them, giving the paintings a sense of dynamism. This stylized and simple aesthetic of Watanabe’s work can also be viewed in his sculptures, some of which are also on display on the first floor of this exhibition.

In several of the paintings, such as “Temptation” and “Tempted by the Dark,” the oni appear as fierce creatures struggling to resist the lure of something lurking in the background. “ONI Who Couldn’t Become an Oni,” parts 1 to 3, shows an exhausted creature, tired from resisting becoming what others try to force him to be and from fighting to accomplish what he wants.

While he remains a solitary figure, he fights against another oni in “ONI (Rivalry)” and falls in love with a woman in the “ONI and Madonna” works, which depict his burning desire and longing for the woman as well as his endeavors to have a conversation with her. Here it is clear that Watanabe’s oni not only embody his own emotions, but also reflect those of all humans. If you visit, it’s likely you’ll find a painting revealing one of your inner demons too.

The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura is open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit