He goes by the name Mr., a fitting alias suggesting an anonymous older man—the kind who might show up at a playground with stashes of candy, or watch a junior high school play from the auditorium's shadowy back row. Indeed, Mr. is a Japanese artist whose cartoonish paintings and sculptures in bubblegum colors derive from Japan's otaku (or “geek”) subculture. As such, he shares the otaku obsession with anime, manga comic books and what many have described as their unhealthy infatuation with little girls.
Recently, as Mr. prepared for his first New York solo show at Lehmann Maupin gallery, we visited him at the Long Island City headquarters of Kaikai Kiki, the artist agency headed by Japanese art star Takashi Murakami. Paintings of prepubescents—lifting their skirts, flashing bits of underwear and fearfully gazing up at a naked man's crotch—lined the studio's walls, while assistants put the finishing touches on a room-sized sculpture of a doe-eyed, pink-haired girl.
Mr.'s images are compellingly saccharine portraits of innocence taken to unsettling, seductive extremes. Admitting to a Lolita complex—though he says he doesn't act on it—he maintains the line between fantasy and reality by realizing his fantasies through the medium of his work. All the while, his subject matter is both intensified and chastened, its dark desires illuminated by a sheen of cuteness, posing questions about the limits of acceptability, the boundlessness of imagination and the perversions hidden within all cultures, whether otaku or otherwise. Wearing a white terry cloth head wrap and a neatly-trimmed mustache, the mild-mannered, 37-year-old artist gave us his side of the story.
So who were you before you were Mr.?
I was an art student. And I never took out my garbage. Instead, I'd collect it and make it into art, sort of inspired by Arte Povera. I'd put some of it in plastic bags and date it—like a way of recording my life.
I'm almost afraid to ask, but what was in your garbage?
Magazines, food, packaging from convenience stores. I'd keep the paper sleeves that chopsticks come in, but throw out the chopsticks.
So how did you get into otaku culture?
I always liked manga comic books, since I was little. But when I was in high school, I started becoming more artistic and didn't just want to read manga. In fact, I was embarrassed by being an otaku.
In Japan, there are a lot of otakus who have a Lolita complex. And when I was in high school, there was an incident when one of them killed four girls. I also had a Lolita complex—I still do—but that incident made me not want to be part of that. I wasn't happy about being associated with it.
Is that when you decided to become Mr.? How’d you come up with that name, by the way?
It happened about 12 or 13 years ago, when I started doing my paintings. There's a very famous baseball player in Japan, Shigeo Nagashima, whose nickname was Mr. Giants. [The team he played for was the Yomiuri Giants.] People told me we were kind of similar. He was kind of weird and I guess I'm kind of weird—people always think I say strange things—so I took his nickname, but just the Mr. part.
Was assuming a different identity a way of distancing yourself from your otaku past?
No, it's the other way around. I had sort of come out. I wasn't embarrassed anymore. I just wanted to come out and say I'm an otaku.
Why do you like being an otaku so much?
I like that it's not cool, and that I don't have to worry about the uncoolness. It's difficult to explain. But I like the aesthetic—both the content and the context, the atmosphere at the otaku events I go to, and the otaku radio shows that you can hear at night. There was one in which a brother falls in love with his own sister. I don't have a sister and, even if I did, that wouldn't happen to me. But I still like the story.
Do you like that kind of stuff because it's twisted, or does it seem natural to you?
It seems natural to me.
Your work seems to be taking on a more narrative quality. What's the story behind the painting of the schoolgirl over there? She has a penis. And her friend is lifting her skirt to expose it.
I saw something like this in a manga comic. She's usually a girl, but she's really a boy who hides it by living like a normal girl. One day, her friend figures that out. It's like, What are you hiding? Let me see it. And that's what happens.
How about your painting with the girl sitting in the countryside with a bento box? You can almost see up her skirt.
It's about an older man who takes this girl from her neighborhood to go on a picnic. And that older man is me. I guess it's like a kidnapping.
America's a pretty conservative place, especially when it comes to children. Has anyone ever confronted you about your work?
I've never had that experience before, so I'm nervous about the reactions this time. I don’t feel bad about these works, but I'm nervous about the cultural differences. Truly.
Pretend I'm a decent, churchgoing housewife from Muncie, Indiana. I've seen your work and I'm outraged. How do you respond?
There isn't a way to respond to that. It's that there are incomprehensible, different cultures in the world, and there's little I can do.
Some people see your work as a cultural commentary. Others wonder if it's about your personal fantasies. Which is it?
It's a personal thing. I'm releasing my fantasy world through my work, instead of acting it out in real life.
Without getting too personal, do you have a girlfriend, wife—or both?
I wonder why, too. Maybe it's too much trouble. I feel really relaxed by myself.
You were included in the 2005 exhibition Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture [See Art Crawl, April 2005], which was curated by Takashi Murakami at New York's Japan Society. Among other things, it made the case that Japan's otaku culture emerged partly in response to Japan's demilitarization—and the sense of impotence and even infantilization that resulted—after World War II. Do you agree with that?
I don't make infantile paintings on purpose; it's just the way it turns out. It's just a fantasy. Like army tanks: a lot of people love them. They know they're really bad, they kill people, but they still really like them.
Now that your name is Mr., does that mean you've grown up?
No, I don't think it's related.