Saying Bye Bye Kitty!!! to a Culture of Cute

It’s hard to express the magnitude of the disaster that faced Japan after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant melt-down earlier this year. Every aspect of Japanese life has been affected, from entire villages having vanished to the yen’s record low. One might also expect the cultural life of Japan to change soon as the nation tries to comprehend the results of March 11. Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art by David Elliott is a catalog and exhibition of art by contemporary Japanese artists reacting against their nation’s current artistic production. It explores fear and violence in a society often shown in both outsiders’ depictions and through self-representation as impotent and childish. Because the collection was envisioned before the natural disasters occurred, it might be seen as acting as an omen of a looming catastrophe in Japan and serve as an indicator of where Japanese art is be headed now.

According to the Washington Post, the Japan Society’s gallery director, Joe Earle, noted that Bye Bye Kitty!!! was “an unexpectedly timely show full of foreboding and cultural subversion. ‘Imagine how it would look,’ he said, ‘if we had something frothy and superficial now.’” The art, however, reacts against underlying anxieties that have existed in Japanese culture for, arguably, 250 years, or since Japan reconnected with the rest of world. Many of these tensions come from stereotypes: the sexless “salaryman” of the business world, the “sexually precocious prepubescent girls,” and the conception that all Japanese people are immature. Elliot claims that the artists in this collection speak out in order to end the dominance of the cultures of kawaii (“cute,” think: Hello Kitty) and otaku (housebound male geeks living out sexual fantasies in formats like manga or video games). For instance, in “Harakiri School Girls”, artist Makoto Aida combines kawaii with seppuku, ritual suicide. Sexualized schoolgirls, drawn in Japanese cartooning styles, “ecstatically disembowel themselves.” The mostly younger-generation artists hope that others might reject the commercialized infantilism of their current artistic culture, especially now in a society which might inevitably project a more serious image to the rest of the world.

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