Eyes. We all have them. Many of us view them as ‘windows’ or ‘mirrors’ of the soul. Those who’ve had the pleasure of even briefly glancing at the instantly-recognizable works of Tokyo-based Yoshitomo Nara have noted that theirs look quite nice: clear, expressive, soulful; somehow able to convey a sense of childhood hope, teenage rebelliousness, and ancient wisdom with a single look. Shifting our gaze from the art to the artist behind it, we spoke with Nara about his life, Phaidon’s book that – unlike the rest – might just change how people see him, and the axiom that you’re never quite the right age for anything that’s worth a closer look.
Before your first exhibition, before your first painting, before everything else, there was music. Were your love of music and the music you loved influenced by anyone in your life, or have you always instinctively known what you like?
Back in the mid-1960s when I was little and we didn’t even have a TV yet, I loved listening to the music on the radio broadcasts coming from the US base. Rather than broadcasts in Japanese made for adults, I loved the time slots when the American military would air nothing but music. When I became a middle schooler and started going to record shops, I’d hum my favourite musical phrases that I picked up as a little kid, and have them find the albums from which they came.
Do you ever use old photographs or other sentimental objects as sources of inspiration? Or do you always reach for something intangible like memories, melodies, etc.?
Both. Just recalling the scene of a memory brings back the temperature and air that accompanied that moment, and even the events that happened before and after. It taps into a rambling stream of memories, which might be the source of my imagination.
Like many aspiring artists, you experienced a little ‘aha’ moment when a friend complimented one of your drawings. Have you kept it? Have your feelings towards it changed?
I never aspired to be an artist; it’s just that I was pretty good at drawing so I thought it may be easier to get into an art university than a regular one, so that’s how I ended up in art school. When I got there, there were a lot of people who were much better than I was, and they were all very serious about becoming artists. I was an underachiever and more interested in going to see live music, movies, and plays than working on my drawings.
Critics often associate your works with various aspects of childhood, while you highlight the universal teenage sentiments they convey. Do you think there’s a clear line between these life stages and if so, where is it drawn?
I think that the sensibility of childhood is universal, but the teenaged sensibility of adolescence when people try to stretch themselves has an expiration date. Sometimes reading feels like a substitute for actual personal experience, leading people to think they’ve gained something really vital. This might motivate them to create more artwork but once they realize how superficial the influence was, they become deflated or give up on creating. I think this can happen often. But I think I was able to continue creating freely because I was an underachieving art student with neither pride nor ambition.
After moving to Tokyo for university, you met the man who used to sell you records and realized he’d assumed you were ‘an old man’. How so, do old men have specific tastes in music?
To be precise, what happened was that when I moved to Tokyo for university, I went to the record shop that I used to mail order from, and the shop staff said: ‘Based on the records you were ordering, I thought you were in your mid to late 20s. I didn’t think you were so young (18 years old)!’ The music I was into was more the taste of someone about ten years older than me.
Based on your personal experience of the two countries and their art schools, how do the Japanese and German attitudes towards art and artists differ?
Before the question of art and so forth, there is a fundamental difference in the education of children between these countries: Europe teaches children to ‘have their own mind, think and speak for themselves.’ In contrast, Japan’s educational system teaches children to ‘learn skills, do exactly what they’re told.’ This is a problem that goes beyond just art and artists.
Before continuing your studies in Germany, you’d taught art in Japan. What sort of teacher were you and what have you learned on the other side of the lectern?
The students held me in high regard because I was their teacher, and I felt very overrated. I was such an underachiever at my university, but my students believed me to be a real teacher, or even a role model as an artist (even though I was no such thing!). This weighed on me heavily and motivated me to go to Germany to ‘properly study art!’
You’ve travelled to many countries, both for professional and personal reasons. Was your trip to Sakhalin any different considering its ties to your homeland and your family?
The trip to Sakhalin became a journey to explore my own roots, and to discover untouched landscapes.
You’ve praised Matisse and criticized Dalí for one’s ability to evolve and move forward artistically and the other’s lack thereof. Where does that put Picasso with his desire to ‘draw like a child’?
Picasso is so stiflingly passionate, and I struggle with that. I do think his art is wonderful, but somehow, it just isn’t for me. Picasso just kind of overdoes it. I know society calls that his genius, but as for me, I respect the ordinary philosopher who thinks things through quietly and puts them into action.
You’ve talked about trying to create more ‘permanent’ works and hoping that they outlive you. What do you think determines the longevity of an artwork, and how does it relate to its overall value?
I’ve never thought that through.
Some of your iconic characters appear in the children’s book The Lonesome Puppy. What inspired you to create the book, and has it changed people’s perceptions of your work in any way?
My friends had a baby, and that inspired me to make a book for children. Originally, it’s something only for that child, so I’m kind of uncomfortable with it being seen as a piece of art.
Many books have been dedicated to you and your extensive body of work, including your most completed monographic book recently published by Phaidon. How is this one different?
Compared with previous books, this one offers a deep dive analysis into who I am as an individual. I think that the content (the text) may actually affect how the readers see. I am hopeful that people will come to understand the inner life of the pieces I’ve created through my sensibilities, blood, and sweat. The difference between me and the superficial imitators who came after should become definitively clear.
You’ve talked about how each art form and medium you pursue – painting, drawing, sculpture – means something completely different. What about graffiti and poetry?
In the end, all forms of expression are ways for me to make myself visible from the outside. To me, they are all equal and the same; I think the differences in media are what other people see of me, while some people may see it as the same category.
At this point of a long and fruitful career, what more is there left to do?
I’ve never thought about it. If I were to suddenly die right now, I would have absolutely no regrets.