“Land of the Rising Zine” cover art by Natsuki Otani from the charity zine for the Japan tsunami appeal by Illustration Rally blog.
The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery from their various places around the globe.
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Today, I talk with Japanese born/Sweden-based illustrator Natsuki Otani.
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Journey to the West
John: Kon’nichiwa and Hej! Let’s start with your growing up in Japan and eventually ending up in Sweden.
Natsuki: Sure. I was born in Tokyo and was living with my parents and brother when I was very young. Unfortunately my father passed away when I was fourteen and I guess that event shaped me to be a bit more independent than other girls my age.
When I was twenty-one, I enrolled in Norwich University of the Arts (in England) to study graphic design, and that’s where I met my husband. He’s a game designer, and people in the games industry seem to work everywhere in Europe. So the same happened with him. After getting married in England we moved to Portugal, Germany, and then finally Sweden because of his work. And all during that time, I was freelancing as an artist.
John: When did you begin drawing?
Natsuki: No one in my family was the artsy type, so I’m not sure where my interest in art came from! But I remember drawing some anime characters for friends when I was a kindergartner, and getting some nice praise! That definitely encouraged me to like drawing more.
Most of the prefectures in Japan have some high schools that focus solely on music or art courses. So when I was in my teens, I decided to go to an art high school in Tokyo. My first formal art training would have actually been in preparation for this school’s entrance exam. It involved pencil drawing and still life watercolor painting.
In my art high school we studied all kinds of art, including sculpture, oil painting, and traditional Japanese painting. I originally intended to go to a Japanese art university upon graduation, so again I focused hard on drawing for several years. I would need to pass yet another entrance exam for university! It was common back then for Japanese art student wannabes to spend years training before they actually got into an art uni. But at that point I had had enough of it, so I decided to study in England instead.
By the way, I really liked the first year of the graphic design course at Norwich back then. It allowed students to experience graphic design, editorial design, photography, animation, and illustration before choosing one to continue further in our second and third years.
Style & Influences
John: Your work interweaves floral patterns, figures, and animals using a dreamy mix of vibrant, yet muted colors. How did those technical elements come about for you?
Natsuki: I think I always try to create something that can exist only in a piece of artwork. I try to draw visions that I can’t see in the real world but I wish I could see.
John: And you seem to combine elements of the real with the surreal… or beauty with the sinister. What’s the motivation for these sharp contrasts?
Natsuki: The contrast is intended to give viewers something that is familiar amidst the unrecognizable. I think familiarity is very important for illustration and design. That isn’t always the case for fine art. But for design I always like to embed something “real” no matter how surreal my drawings can appear.
John: What other artists have influenced you in your journey?
Natsuki: There are countless artistic influences over time, but I try to avoid looking at others’ drawing when searching for inspiration. Instead, I look to things like the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the music of Perfume Genius. They give me so many ideas without limiting my thinking about how to express myself.
Natsuki: I think Japanese creators are quite fortunate. They have an accepting environment in which to enjoy anime, manga, or even computer games without being discriminated against. They’re also able to use these subcultures to express their artistic creativity.
Playing Nintendo never categorized me as a geek girl. Hiyao Miyazaki’s films were on TV regularly. And Takashi Murakami started collaborating with luxury fashion brands, causing his anime/manga influenced art to enter the mainstream just like Andy Warhol. It’s all quite in sync with the overall culture, rather than against it.
Engineering a Lunchbox
John: You and I began brainstorming months ago about a print for the LunchKraft lunchbox. We talked back and forth through various ideas, and you sketched about a dozen possible designs over three rounds of development. The final design will be released in early September 2019.
John: Ultimately, you settled on one that incorporated a fantastical taiyaki fish bearing a boy and a girl aloft. How did you navigate through that process of development?
Natsuki: Originally you and I had discussed creating a design with a theme like “girl power”. But this then shifted to a more inclusive design for both boys and girls.
John. Yeah. I liked the idea of encouraging boys and girls to really partner together in adventures to make the world a more beautiful place.
Natsuki: Right. But I still wanted to draw something to say that girls can be leaders or heroes in a subtle way. It’s great to have a story that has a clear strong female character such as Wonder Woman but I think it’s also nice to see a more natural representation of girls in leadership roles. Hopefully in time this will simply become the norm.
So I simply drew the girl in the front of their taiyaki airship, to show that she is the one who leads this food adventure they are on! It’s a really simple bit of visual language, but I’d prefer to leave the space for people to read or think about what the design could mean.
I also knew you liked the idea of something a bit like Howl’s Moving Castle so that was one of the visual inspirations. My idea was to draw something to encourage children (and adults) to enjoy lunch or any mealtime, so I drew the boy and the girl in this taiyaki airship as explorers and… evangelists of food in some way to represent that.
John: You know, my interest in portraying boys and girls this way comes in part out of a sense that the sexes don’t seem to get along very well these days. The expectations on one another have grown more and more unrealistic, while the satisfaction in what is delivered has diminished. Things like social media, pop music, Hollywood, and mass media advertising could be blamed for this. But I think these are just the outward expressions of something that has gone wrong inwardly.
A few years ago, I read an article where a number of Japanese young men were expressing great anticipation for better AI and sex-bots. They hoped new advances would produce female companions indistinguishable from their human counterparts (except for being more compliant). This feel a part of movement in recent decades away from flesh-and-blood relationship through on-demand internet pornography, virtual reality, and simulation in things like Gatebox’s “virtual girlfriend” Azuma Hikari.
John: And I know this is not just an issue in Japan, with its decline in romantic relationships and birthrates. We seem to be wrestling at this moment with a tension between the virtual (or imagined) and the real. The former entices us with the promise of engineered perfection to replace the challenges and natural “shortcomings” of our everyday experience.
Our minds have always been able to imagine a more perfect partner when engaged in a dualistic kind of overthinking. But now technology is poised to realize those imaginings through physical forms. But I think that will only lead to more disappointment in the end, rather than satisfaction. I believe that deep satisfaction in life comes from letting go completely of expectations and enjoying the journey, rather than trying to guarantee outcomes we imagine will bring us pleasure.
In short… adventures are what make life meaningful and satisfying! And adventures must have significantly difficult challenges along the way.
Attempting to Define One’s Culture
Getting back on track, haha… you’ve travelled to, lived in, and interacted with a number of other cultures. How much do you feel a part of, or not of, Japanese culture?
Natsuki: It may be that I didn’t know how to appreciate my cultural background in my artwork until I started living overseas. For some time I avoiding drawing things that were overtly Japanese in my work unless I was specifically asked to include them. This was because I felt I was taking advantage of something I hadn’t earned myself.
However, now I think Japanese culture is a part of me whether I intend it to be or not. And that culture is something to both cherish as well as experiment with. My artwork is ultimately more an expression of myself than of my country or nationality. But I wouldn’t have learnt this without traveling outside of my own country.
John: And how does that specifically play out in your work?
Natsuki: That’s such a hard question, and I honestly don’t know if it has changed anything in terms of my visual style. It’s definitely influenced my way of thinking and seeing things, though. I think only viewers of my artwork could comment on this, and it would all depend on their personal perspectives of me.
People often find something they would call “Japanese” in my work even though I’ve had no intention of doing this. I left Japan thirteen years ago and rarely speak Japanese these days. It seems to me that my real life journey is lost in translation. But it’s fine to me when this kind of interpretation happens. I like people to interpret my work in their own ways.
John: As creative people, do you and your husband want to get all kinds of fantastic art into your daughter’s life? So she can say she did have an “artsy” family?
Natsuki: Of course we do, but we also want her to experience everything else! As a kid I used to learn about and enjoy Math, English, calligraphy, piano, tennis, kendo, and softball outside of regular school time… some of them I was pretty bad at, but it was still awesome to get to experience so many different things. I’d actually be more than happy if she ends up being sporty instead of artsy!
John: Do you think having a daughter will affect the substance of your art-making in any way?
Natsuki: It’s only been two months since my daughter arrived in our life so it’s a little hard to say what impact she has made to my creativity. I think I’m purely focused on making sure she’s alright at the moment! I never thought about my work being seen by my own children before her, obviously. I’m guessing I’ll be more conscious about creating work that she can be proud of or inspired by.
The design for LunchKraft is the first job I’ve finished since her birth, and I have some wishes for her future within that. I do want her to be a strong girl who can stand on her own two legs, lead her own life, and be able to enjoy and appreciate what she eats. To my husband and me, cooking and sharing a meal together is very important. I believe it’s a celebration of our life so I really can’t wait for her to join us and start using her lunchbox!