Shohei Otomo

The hero image chosen for this show by graphic illustrator and artist SHOHEI Otomo confronts us directly with the consequences of living in a fool’s paradise. The tsunami-caused disaster of Fukushima is a loud and continuing wake-up call that paradise comes at a cost and the toll master is unforgiving. Created with a one dollar ballpoint pen and SHOHEI’s unmistakeable creative and conceptual genius, the breathtaking detail of the work immediately engages our attention and admiration. There is no mistaking the message of this foreboding figure. The rising sun is an anomaly.

SHOHEI’s work is political, stark and uncompromising in its strident comments on contemporary Japanese (read international) culture. Familiar and beloved symbols of Japan’s much admired traditional culture cavort with icons of the contemporary age, a tense, dark melange that is nonetheless beautiful. The images are distinctly Japanese yet the conformity of globalization renders them intimately recognizable.

Described sometimes as a cyberpunk artist, SHOHEI’s work straddles the worlds of illustration, art, anime and punk. Emerging from a uniquely Japanese background and art tradition, SHOHEI transcends cultural barriers and presents a chilling picture of an all-too-present Armageddon. In a rare interview in English, SHOHEI cites the cinematic influences of samurai movies -such as Kurosawa’s renowned Seven Samurai -and spaghetti Westerns, as significant. Certainly his characters have the immediate and visceral appeal of the moving image.

The influence of the grand and internationally acknowledged Japanese graphic tradition of ukiyoe is manifest in his work. ‘Lust Transcends the Space-Time Continuum’ is a direct reference to the erotic shunga 春画 (pictures of Spring) of the 18th and 19th centuries and to the contemporary cult of the bishojo 美少女 (beautiful young girl). ‘Riding the Giant Carp’, formatted in the typical ukiyoe style of scroll-like cartouches for series, title, and artist, addresses the long-held ideal of the Japanese male – strength to swim against the current and rise victorious over the falls – yet here an unmistakeable criminal of the yakuza underworld attempts to dominate and suppress that spirit. Both works speak to the continuing ascendancy of the male perspective in Japanese society.

The disturbing ‘Octopus and Ama’ (pearl diver) sees SHOHEI establishing his artistic credibility and pedigree by consciously placing himself in a direct line of significant artists starting from the renowned ukiyoe artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), reaching abroad to Picasso and including SHOHEI’s senior peers Masami Teraoka and Aida Makoto. Termed ‘creative borrowing’ by Western academia, this is a time-honoured Japanese way of acknowledging artistic masters and identifying with a longstanding tradition.

Integral also to Japan’s artistic tradition is the use of symbols as a secret language accessible only to a group of connoisseurs with a shared subculture. Seemingly innocuous images can have an entirely different meaning for the inner circle. The giant carp might be recognizable to some who have seen Boys’ Day kites and have enquired as to their meaning. The diving girl as a symbol of Princess Tamatori and her sacrifice for her noble husband is less accessible, putting the image of the woman and the octopus in a different light.

SHOHEI’s work abounds with symbols, some familiar, others less so. Beyond the visual world he so masterfully creates, lies a hidden world of discovery.

– Lesley Kehoe BA MA FRAS
© Lesley Kehoe Galleries 2012

Shohei Otomo
Lesley Kehoe