Self-proclaimed messiah Shoko Asahara spreads his message with sarin gas through the Tokyo subways frying people's nasal passages, a Japanese atomic plant has a meltdown giving people skin like Gamera, and Miyazaki, an animation otaku, watches too much Ranma and kills and eats little kids. These are some sample types of headlines that scare the shit out of artist and sculptor Kenji Yanobe. His work is a partial reaction to events like these which are happening to the "otaku generation" -- kids who watched robot shows, animation, and read comics.
Somehow, being invited to speak on a panel discussion on Giant Robots and manga culture at the San Francisco Yerba Buena Gardens Museum along with Fred Schott, the manga knowledge king, and Kenji Yanobe, artist, I was dwarfed.
It turned out that Kenji had been in San Francisco for a week or so building new projects for this and his following exhibit in Switzerland. On his desk, in his tiny office located within the museum, there was a soldering iron and a few small circuit boards with diodes, resistors, and so on. A young woman representative from a Tokyo gallery was hanging out with him. She spoke a little more English than "hi". Wearing wire-framed glasses and a long sleeved black turtle neck. Kenji looked kind of like a "Sprocket", although he's low-key. He'e been living in Germany for the last three years after he got a grant.
Having only read about Kenji's work, I had yet to see it. So, we took a short walk down a nondescript hallway into the museum where he immediately broke into dialogue about his artwork. He was kind of relieved that I spoke some Japanese since his English is a bit broken.
Born in 1965, Kenji grew up in Osaka as a huge fan of Giant Robo, Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and animation shows from the '70s. He was quick to show me slides of his old work. One of them showed him wearing a full-bodied Kamen Rider outfit with helmet in hand. He looked like one of my removable-mask vinyl dolls. Another had him wearing a blue Giant Robo costume made out of cardboard. And a third featured him inside a well-contoured dark grey Gamera outfit on all fours. He told me that he was still proud of this outfit since it was done so well. I asked him when he made these outfits. He told me that they were from his high school days! He went on to say that he learned a lot of his building skills before he went to art school.
We have all taken stares at Van Gogh's "Starry Night," and the Mona Lisa, but they are nothing but five inch by five inch printed images in a book. Going to the Kyoto Art University, Kenji studied art history and now admits that he couldn't feel why the paintings were so beautiful. "When I went to Europe directly, I recognized the beauty of the art. But at the same time, I feel a big difference between Europe and Japan. The teacher in Europe takes a child to see the masterpieces directly, and they appreciate it directly. When I was a child, I saw TV, animation, and I got an impression from them. I wanted to find the center of beauty from this [Japanese] culture." Instead of adhering to the rules of European art taught to him in Japan, Kenji fused his own first hand childhood art experiences, television shows, and the rest of his knowledge and experiences. He thinks that Japanese animation and old TV shows are beautiful and can be an artistic influence for everyone much like the works of other artists. "The art world is so closed and so heavy that I want to make it more positive. I'm just walking a tightrope and it's very dangerous. Art or movie, I can go either way, so basically my art can be for anyone." Today, he hardly watches animation, and just tells me that he's excited to be working on projects.
When describing his works and his outlook on many subjects which translate into his art, Kenji often uses the word "cynical". But when confronted with the questions, "Why are you cynical?" he responds with, "What do you mean I am cynical?" Instead, he says a new word, "humor." "I worry about things. I'm constantly thinking about people's happiness." Kenji's sculptures mostly relate his needs to prevent bodily damage from atomic fallout. He mentions that just five days before, there was yet another atomic accident in Japan. Many pieces of Kenji's art are essentially shelters for his and his family's bodies. He worries about atomic and chemical technology, and this is strongly represented in his work–many of the pieces involve survival for himself and his family. One of his works, is for Kenji and his dog, another is a living chamber in case of fire, one is a radiation suit, and they go on. I asked one question too many, losing sight of his work as art. I asked if he could really survive in these outfits for even an hour, and he admitted that his work has some "weak points".
The obvious link would be that Kenji's art is a reaction to the atomic bombings of Japan 50-plus years ago. But when you bring up Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kenji doesn't really address it since they are happened long before he was born. Although he's gone and seen all the sites when he was a kid, Kenji is interested mainly in the present and future. "I am just making things for what I need now and for my family."