It must have been nonstop monsters, warships, hunks and epic boobage for much of Noriyoshi Ohrai’s life.
The retrospective exhibition, at the Ueno Royal Museum, of this incredibly prolific illustrator’s work is a frenzied and spectacularly schlocky cosmos of sci-fi and action movie posters, magazines, books and record covers.
Born in 1935 in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, Ohrai went to study painting at the Tokyo National University of Arts and Music at the age of 19, only to drop out three years later with the view that he had nothing more to learn there. According to the official website (ohrai.net), Ohrai first exhibited his paintings in Ginza in 1960, but failed to sell a single work. He joined the Tokyu Agency, a newly created advertising group, in 1962.
His subsequent career as an illustrator has left a considerable mark on popular culture, not only in Japan, but also through his poster work for the Star Wars and Toho Studio’s Godzilla film franchises, for pretty much anywhere on the planet exposed to popular culture.
What is clear from the expansive exhibition of his life’s work, is that Ohrai was a hardworking professional. The sheer quantity of images — Ohrai would spend an average of three days on a commission, and created around 1,300 book covers alone — is awe-inspiring. In order to achieve this output, many illustrations were dashed off with cursory brushwork, compositions repeated and themes reused. However, providentially blessed with uncanny draftsmanship skills, which can be fully appreciated from more sober images such as his monochrome depiction of swordsman Miyamoto Musashi for Eiji Yoshikawa’s book series or his ink drawings of world leaders, Ohrai’s ability to indicate a correctly proportioned human form, or recognizable celebrity face with the most perfunctory marking is something to marvel at in itself.
Being of his time, Ohrai’s sci-fi illustrations from the 1970s and ’80s will bring a smile to any aging nerds who grew up fantasizing about fighting off alien monsters with a ray gun or sword in one hand and clutching a buxom woman, with only jewelry to keep her warm, with the other. If melon-soda green skies and purple planets are too fanciful for you, Ohrai also produced a fair amount of photorealistic military illustrations for historical magazines, and it is strangely moving to see that he painted allied and axis war machines with an unbiased devotion to producing images of accurate detail and drama, irrespective of allegiance. A painting of the Japanese Yamato, one of the most powerful battleships ever created, is painted with all due reverence, for example, but then so is an exhibit showing the sinking of U.S. carrier Gambier Bay.
If the last section of the exhibition is anything to go by, Ohrai’s career may have been dominated by fantasies of aggressive machismo and objectified female sexuality, but he was not necessarily taken in by them. Showing some of Ohrai’s personal oil paintings, soldiers here appear not as fantasy heroes, but as walking skeletons or eviscerated corpses, at their feet are bodies of dead women and children. One of the paintings is titled “Dak To 1967 (Vietnam)”, commemorating one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The largest painting, “Destroyed Humans”, painted in 1983 and similar in proportion and scale to Picasso’s “Guernica,” shows a semi-abstract assemblage of torn flesh, guts, rib cages and broken skulls, a skeleton in U.S. army combat fatigues can be seen on the left of the canvas pointing an M16 toward an impaled cadaver.
Despite whatever serious intent with which the painting was made, in its own way it’s just as puerile and grandiose as Ohrai’s illustration work, but in the context of the exhibition it’s a poignant endnote to a life spent catering to market demand for fantasies of violence and male sexual desire.
“Noriyoshi Ohrai: The Illustrator” at The Ueno Royal Museum runs until Feb. 4; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,600. Irregular closed days, check www.ueno-mori.org for more details.