Crazy In A Good Way
In 2005, Milk Gallery in New York invited Japanese artist Junko Mizuno to join photographer Annie Leibovitz, fashion designer Betsey Johnson and others to participate in The Pony Project. Mizuno recalls, “Every artist was provided with a huge, blank My Little Pony toy for them to customise. I made mine into ‘Witch Pony’ wearing a black hooded cape.” Her sinister twist to the sugary-sweet girls’ craze encapsulates her distinctive blending of ‘kawaii’, the cult of cute in Japan, with the macabre and erotic.
As well as dolls and other toys, manga and anime pervaded Mizuno’s girlhood in the Seventies and inspire her to this day, among them the enormous, seminal output of the late ‘God of Manga’, Osamu Tezuka (1928-89). “To me, Tezuka’s manga are like textbooks. They have everything I want to learn - character design, composition, panel layout, storytelling. I’ve read my favorites so many times but I still keep learning something new from them.” As for Japan’s forebears of comics and animation in the populist art of ukiyo-e or ‘floating world’ prints and ‘shunga’ or erotic ‘spring’ drawings, the young Mizuno came to them by exploring Western artists. “At first, I was especially influenced by Aubrey Beardsley, who had been inspired himself by 19th century Japanese art.”
Mizuno was lucky to be discovered through her single hand-made zine in 1995, which led to her debut in the high-profile glossy magazines H and Popeye. From these sprang other projects, such as the comics Pure Trance serialised inside a ten-CD series from label Avex Trax introducing techno music to Japan in 1998 and three volumes of her delicious perversions of fairytales in Cinderalla [sic] with a zombie Prince Charming, or Princess Mermaid featuring sirens who lure sailors to their aquatic bordello and devour them. Translated into English, these built up more of a following for her internationally than in Japan, from the animated title credits for Jonathan Ross’s Japanorama TV series to gig posters for bands like Faith No More (above), Mudhoney and Swans.
Her growing fame outside Japan culminated four years ago in her moving to the States, since when her main income has been from her paintings and prints (Flora Delirium (2007) above). Her next show in September at Nucleus in Alhambra, California promises to be Japan-themed and darker. “I feel more free to do what I really want to here. I want my paintings to be visceral and raw. I think my style is getting more crazy, in a good way.”
Mizuno is also working in three dimensions, returning to her love of toys by designing her own urban vinyl figures. “I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘mother goddess’ image that represents fertility, reproduction and creation. About four years ago, visiting the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I was overwhelmed by the old sculptures of mythological characters. When Kidrobot commissioned me to create a large, black toy, I took some ideas from my photos, so my Kuro Megami figure (above) feels more like a folk-art statue than a toy. I saw some photos on the internet in which my figure was on an altar surrounded by candles. It made me smile.”
This wellspring of deities also informs her largest painting so far, Goddess (2008), which serves as the source and climax of her new wordless Strip of the same name (below), which she created for ArtReview Asia magazine’s first issue launching at Art Basel Hong Kong, May 23rd-26th. She expands on the painting by showing how her five heroines are swept up by a huge wave and saved from drowning by a cigar-smoking fish, an owl in denim bellbottoms and other wildlife. Like a second birth, the breaking waters suck them back to the womb of the huge floating goddess who embraces them in her benign arms and flippers.
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Junko Mizuno kindly answered a few questions in preparation of this article. Here’s the full transcript of our email interview.
What have been your experiences of moving and living in the USA? What made you decide to leave Japan - what do you miss about it?
It’s been four years and I’m finally feeling settled. The mainreason I moved here was that most job offers were coming from the US and Europe in my last couple of years in Japan. It made me want to try living overseas. What I miss about Japan are: food, bath houses and super clean trains.
How has the market for your paintings and comic art grown through galleries like Nucleus? Do you have a gallery selling your work in Japan or Asia?
There’s no galleries that sell my work in Japan now. In Japan, collecting originals is not very common so it’s hard to sell my paintings and comic pages at the rate I sell them here. Since I started showing with galleries in LA and Toronto, my main income has been painting and print sales. Before that, I was mainly working on my comics and illustrations, so it feels very different.
I know you find inspiration for some of your manga in fairytales and mythology. What goddesses and stories inspired this new Goddess painting and Goddess strip?
The painting is actually not very new. It’s from 2008. I like to depict different types of women and I’ve always been fascinated by the “mother goddess” image that represents fertility, reproduction, creation etc. Goddess is one of the pieces that have that image. Since it was for an art magazine, I wanted to do a comic based on one of my paintings. And the painting “Goddess” came to my mind as it was the largest piece I’ve ever done and has a lot of details which would give me ideas. I decided to make a story how the girls found the huge goddess floating in the sea.
You also love cute but strange toys and dolls, especially ones with their own self-contained world. What does it feel like for you to create and own toys of your own?
It’s just fun and exciting! After I started designing my own toys, I slowed down in collecting, so maybe it means I’m more content than before.
Your latest KidRobot toy makes me think of a folk art statue to be worshipped, like Kali from Hindu myths? What do you think of the power in these ‘toy’ figures?
Yes, that Kuro Megami figure feels more like a statue than a toy. About four years ago, I visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I was overwhelmed by the old sculptures of deities and mythological characters they had and took hundreds of photos. After that, KidRobot offered me the chance to do a large, black toy and I took some ideas from the photos. So it’s natural people think the figure is kind of like a folk art statue. I even saw some photos on the internet in which the figure was placed on an altar and surrounded by candles. It made me smile.
How did you start making gig posters for Faith No More, Mudhoney, Swans, etc? Do bands approach you? Do you try to respond to their music or style or themes? Do you get free tickets and meet the band backstage!!?
It’s usually the poster maker that contacts me but I know some of the people from the bands and sometimes I get to see them and say hi after shows. Sometimes I get ideas from their music, song titles etc. Other times I just do whatever I feel like. There’s a lot of creative freedom in designing gig posters and that’s what I love about it. The poster maker/seller usually puts me on the guest list for the show and I feel very lucky about it.
In what ways do Japanese art and prints from the past influence you - like ukiyo-e or shunga prints?
When I was a kid I was interested only in comics and animation, so ukiyo-e felt like just an old, boring thing. After that, I got into Western artists and was especially influenced by Aubrey Beardsley who had been influenced by Japanese art in the 19th century, so I was kind of unconsciously influenced by it through him. Now I’m mature enough to be able to appreciate some old Japanese art directly, but the way it works for me is the same as other art. To me it’s just another form of art and I have pieces and artists that I like and dislike.
What do you love about your favourite manga and anime by Tezuka?
To me, Tezuka’s books are like text books. It feels like his work has everything I want to learn - character designs, composition, panel layout, storytelling, etc, etc. I’ve already read my favorites so many times but I still keep learning something new from them.
How do other classic mangaka from the past inspire you? Go Nagai? Kazuo Umezu? Shigeru Mizuki? Any Shojo artists?
Leiji Matsumoto, Kazuo Umezu, Hideshi Hino. For Shojo artists I think Yumiko Oshima is really amazing. I’m not sure if her work has been translated into English, though.
How has your recent art style changed? You mentioned you are using more details now, for example in your toy design?
I think my style is getting more visceral and crazy in a good way because I feel like I have more freedom to do what I really want to here. People have more capacity to appreciate new/strange things here. Many of my Japanese fans want me to do the same “cutesy girls being a bit weird” thing over and over again, but I’m growing up and cannot stay the same. I can still enjoy doing cute illustrations and comics, but when I do paintings for my own shows or design my own toys, I want them to be visceral and raw.
Are your posters, paintings, toys and manga all aspects from the same “Mizuno-verse”? Do you prefer to be able to move from one form or medium to another freely?
They are equally important for me and yes, I always want to be able to move from one form to another. I’m lucky I can do it but the problem is the time. I have so many things i want to do but I can’t do them all. Sometimes I wish I had five more bodies or 72 hours a day.
Will there be more Pelu stories translated into English?
Yes!! Actually I just finished proofing the volume 2 and it’s coming out from Last Gasp this July. Please spread the word!
I saw you recently created a short Spider-Man story for Marvel’s Strange Tales anthology (see below). Are you making other new manga at the moment?
I’ve been planning to do a new serial with a Japanese comic magazine but it’s taking long because of my schedule. It should happen soon! I still love making manga and I’ve never given up on it.
Back in 2002-3, your designs were animated for the titles of Jonathan Ross’s Japanorama TV series? Is there any chance of your work now being made into better, proper animation? Perhaps using computer software? Would this interest you?
Animation is very interesting but making it is not on my priority list. I know making animation needs a lot of work, time and money. I’m too busy to be involved. It would be amazing if I could find the right people who can do it for me but it’s just not what I feel the need to do for now at least. I’d love to do character design or something for an animation if I had the chance, though.
What will you put in your next solo show at Nucleus in September?
It will be a Japan-themed show and will be a bit darker than my previous couple of shows.
Will there be a new Mizuno art book soon?
It’s been on my to-do list for a long time and I have enough pieces to make a book. I can’t say when but I’ll try to make it happen as soon as possible!
We look forward to it. Thanks a lot Junko!
Posted: June 2, 2013
This Article originally appeared in the first issue of ArtReview Asia, 2013.