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5 Japanese Artists Who Deserve Your Attention

Fan of movies, poetry or art in general? Discover five Japanese artists to expand your knowledge of Japanese culture, entertainment and history.

By 5 min read

When thinking of Japanese art and artists, our minds tend to follow the usual suspects, such as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Hokusai’s views of Fuji, the writings of Haruki Murakami and collections of Haiku poetry.

However, Japan’s artistic traditions have been shaped by many artists that have yet to receive as much international attention. Here are five Japanese artists you probably haven’t heard of and where to start if you want to know more.

1. Sion Sono

Sono at the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival.

Suicide Club, Love Exposure and Why Don’t you Play in Hell? are niche but successful movies made by the brashest auteur to ever come from Japan, Sion Sono. Some even call Sono “Japan’s Tarantino,” which wouldn’t be a far reach. Sono is known for a hyper-stylized and often hyper-violent approach to sensitive subject matter. However, he manages to explore taboo subjects with great nuance and even extreme comedy.

Sono’s work is aggressively counter-cultural to what he perceives as Japan’s contemporary status quo. For example, his abhorrence of the culture surrounding sexual assault and misogyny from young men in Japan, is heavily espoused in his seminal work Love Exposure.

That Sono can communicate these criticisms and themes in what amounts to an absurd, comedic melodrama speaks to the contrasts and contradictions that define him as a filmmaker and person.

2. Kobo Abe

Liked to visit dunes himself.

Kobe Abe is widely compared to author Franz Kafka in his modernist writing style and the themes in his work. These are especially prevalent in his magnum opus, The Woman in the Dunes. He has described himself as “a man without a hometown,” giving him a unique insight into what he perceives as the trappings of seemingly idyllic small-town life and influenced much of his critical writing about Japanese society.

The Woman in the Dunes stands out amongst Japanese social commentary through its unique setting of a village stuck at the bottom of a dune, totally cut off from the outside world and reliant on abducting outsiders to sustain its population. Abe ruthlessly critiques Japanese attitudes towards women, isolationist mindsets and aspects of social behavior and expresses his struggle with the cultural attitudes of Japan in the 40s and 50s.

The desire for escape from a society that Abe promoted in his work is a theme that has been almost a constant in Japan’s artistic landscape. For example, the Woman in the Dunes film adaptation is still referred to often today and speaks to the timelessness of Abe’s writing.

3. Hasui Kawase

Kawase was a Living National Treasure.

Hasui Kawase was a pivotal figure in ukiyo-e (woodblock print) renaissance (Shin-Hanga movement). Kawase famously depicted numerous cityscapes, such as The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba (seen in the header image), and distinguished himself by portraying the seamless integration of industry.

His sketches of Tokyo during the Meiji and Taisho era show a city at peace with its modern state. Willows still reach down for water from the canals, yet now the canals are lined with factories and warehouses, all colored flatteringly. Furthermore, Kawase used his background studying Dutch Impressionism to meld traditional ukiyo-e painting styles, with Western techniques, most notably through watercolors.

These fresh influences led to brave new works of visual art. Kawase’s depictions of towns and cities after dark, in particular, benefit from these new styles, as he manipulates pastel colors to bring light to the darkness. Kawase’s work reignited interest in ukiyo-e in Japan and abroad, allowing the style to flourish today.

4. Sei Shonagon

Sei Shonagon as depicted in the picture album Toyokuni Nishiki-e shu‎.

Shonagon lived during the Heian era, a time of significant development in arts, culture and law for Japan. Born in 966 C.E., she was a favored courtier of the Empress Teishi, and it was in her service that Shonagon would inadvertently make her mark on history.

Shonagon was not an author. However, she wrote The Pillow Book, in which she made observations, poems and complaints about life at court, with no intention of ever sharing these writings. Thankfully, the book would come to light and be printed for mass consumption in the 17th century. The cultural and historical value of such a text cannot be overstated.

Her descriptions of living in Nara when it was the capital transport readers back through time. The writing enriches our understanding of Japanese history through affairs between her courtiers, rivalries lived out through poetry competitions and life amongst the nobility of Heian Japan.

The personal and intimate style she wrote timelessly connects with readers, and her unique list style of poetry inspired poets at the Imperial Court for decades and maybe even centuries after, cementing her unwanted legacy on Japanese history and culture.

5. Koji Shiraishi

A Japanese horror icon.

The found-footage genre was a phenomenon that sprouted, bloomed and wilted in fairly quick succession in the Western cinematic tradition. However, in Japan, the subgenre has persisted under the stewardship of the wonderfully eccentric Koji Shiraishi. Born in 1973, Shiraishi impacted the subgenre with the 2005 cult classic horror Noroi: The Curse.

Noroi: The Curse would prove influential to Japanese cinema and debuted his particular realist style of filmmaking. Shiraishi leverages the popularity of variety shows, comedy shows and celebrity talk shows in the Japanese zeitgeist to ground his films. This is only compounded by the fact that in several of his movies, he portrays himself as a director alongside a cast of real celebrities performing fictionalized versions of themselves in horror settings.

Shiraishi demonstrates skill, innovation and vision in a cinematic landscape that’s a far cry from the horror genre’s golden age of the late 90s and early 00s, which cements him as one of Japan’s great contemporary social commentators and cinematic auteurs.

What Japanese artists do you think don’t get enough attention? Let us know in the comments below.

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