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Track Light Interview #11—> Natsuki Otani (Japan)

“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.

 

“Ryo” collaboration with La Mode Outré.

 

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.

 

Natsuki’s hand-painted Classic DrawBag.

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.

 

“My Sweet Boy” illustration for Saji Magazine.

 

“Secret” illustration for the group exhibition, ‘Stephen Chan and Friends Presents’.

 

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.

John: Several generations of westerners were impacted growing up with Nintendo, Akira, and Studio Ghibli films. Can you comment on the fertility of these unique Japanese creators and innovators?

 

Akira promotional image
Cover of 1988’s animated film Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo.

 

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.

Getting Off-Topic

 

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.

 

“Zashiki Warashi” illustration.

 

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!

Following Up!

 

You can find (and buy) more of Natsuki’s work by checking out her Portfolio,Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook.

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Reflections on the Mental Image

“The digitized picture has broken the relationship between the picture and reality once and for all. We are entering an era when no one will be able to say whether a picture is true or false. They are all becoming beautiful and extraordinary, and with each passing day they belong increasingly to the world of advertising. Their beauty, like their truth, is slipping away from us. Soon they will really end up making us blind.”

– Wim Wenders, director of Until the End of the World

 

As a studio art major in an American college, I had a professor of photography and film who told me there was a time when Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa existed in only one place, and you had to travel a great distance to view it. 

That one place was The Louvre in Paris.

Now, he said, the Mona Lisa exists everywhere, and all at once.

(Well, actually “now” was back then in 1998. He was referring to photographs and printed versions of the Mona Lisa at the time, when the internet was still just emerging, public content-wise. But I think his statement is only more true today.)

 

 

What is the difference between looking at an image of the Mona Lisa and traveling to the Louvre to see the real thing?

It’s not that one is wrong and the other is right.

But what is the difference?

 

And what are the possibilities or consequences of technology advancing further and further into the virtual?

 

What is the difference between pornography and a flesh-and-blood human relationship?

What is the difference between buying into a brand and creating your own?

What is the difference between accepting what you were taught and questioning the nature of reality?

 

Worthy questions to ask in one’s lifetime!

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on Film & Memory

“In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight, only in its recollection.”

– Russian film-maker, Andrei Tarkovsky

 

Earlier this year I went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens and spent some time there trying to imagine what it was like to live in a time before the invention of film, or during a time while it was still evolving (as it still is).

It turns out that’s as difficult a trick as trying to remember what one’s experience was before acquiring language.

A zoetrope.

As I walked through the many exhibitions at the museum, I reflected on how the ubiquitous nature of film in modern culture has us forget how remarkable a trick film actually is:

When watching a film, our memory and connecting of individual images (proceeding rapidly before us) creates a perception (or illusion) of a coherent visual narrative and reality.

Mutoscopes still delighting today… at least for a handful of seconds.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

– from Song of Childhood by Peter Handke

Memories of our past are similar to film in that they allow for an illusion to be created as well. This is the illusion of coherence and meaning, when in reality our memories of the past are subjectively stitched together by our consciousness according to the fears, desires, biases, worldviews, beliefs, and such. accumulated in one’s lifetime.

Memories are given what meaning we assign them, which is then firmed up into our own unique and personal story… for better or for worse.

This is true for all of us, except for those rare individuals who cannot create or recall memories. Their experience is closer to a film-goer who is only able to remember the most recent ten seconds of the film.

 

Individual frames… images… stitched together become a film.

Individual moments… experiences… stitched together become a life.

 

This is the remarkable trick of human consciousness.

A song Bono wrote about after first seeing his then-deceased mother in an early home movie.