Otaku's rising star Masataka Iwamoto brings pop art to Hong Kong

Otaku's rising star Masataka Iwamoto is unleashing his vivid pop art on the city, writes David McNeill

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 1:26pm

BILLED AS JAPAN'S fastest-rising otaku artist, Masataka Iwamoto comes pretty much as advertised. An endearingly boyish 44-year-old, he beavers away in a converted warehouse in Tokyo's soulless northern suburbs surrounded by the geeky paraphernalia of manga and anime culture.

Dolls, models and comics litter the studio. A collection of model guns has been mounted on a board. Saucer-eyed, scantily clad cartoon heroines stare down at us longingly from his paintings throughout the interview.

Iwamoto is single and sleeps in this studio, sometimes with a dakimakura, a sort of comfort pillow embossed with his favourite cartoon character. The studio resembles a working bedroom, or a womb. Like many otaku, he confesses to a platonic pseudo-love for a fictional, preadolescent manga figure. He is known to wear sailor uniforms and other costumes.

His art is irresistible, surreal and queasy, heavily populated with skinny, sexualised schoolgirls in short skirts, panties just visible. Far from denying a Lolita complex, he embraces it.

"I'm not driven to draw girls," he says, just after packing away six new pieces for an exhibition in Hong Kong this month. "I want to express myself as someone with these feelings; as a person coming out and trying to show my embarrassment. I'd prefer to just admit that I'm a Lolita artist rather than misrepresent myself."

Iwamoto is unsure where his psychological baggage or drive to create comes from. He grew up in a small mountain community in Hyogo prefecture, dreaming of Tokyo.

His family was ordinary, he says, except for his mentally ill older brother. The only childhood drama he can remember was when he was four and his house burned down. He started drawing around the same time and quickly became the most talented artist in his school, falling under the spell of Andy Warhol and David Hockney.

After graduating from art school, he became a protégé of Takashi Murakami, a Warhol-like figure who runs a successful collaborative art "factory" called Kaikai Kiki.

Iwamoto's talent quickly propelled him outside Japan, with exhibitions in the US, Britain and Israel.

Somewhere along the way he adopted the alias "Mr.", in a nod to baseball great Shigeo Nagashima, known in Japan as Mr Baseball.

Throughout his career, operating across several platforms including video, painting or sculpture, Iwamoto's themes and aesthetic have stayed strikingly similar. He cleaves closely to the otaku world's love affair with fantasy and self-transformation. His work has helped flatten the distinction between Japan's contemporary subculture and its traditional paintings.

The debates about his art have also stayed the same: is he an ironic commentator on otaku's narrow fanboy obsessions, or part of them?

Japan's triple calamity of March 11, 2011 - an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe - supposedly prompted some otaku artists to stumble out of their bedrooms and stare blinkingly at the real world.

Iwamoto says the disaster has changed him, too, though "not directly". He bought a US$1,000 geiger counter to monitor radiation from Fukushima's leaking nuclear plant. In the same year, he exhibited a large installation in New York's Lehmann Maupin Gallery composed of rubbish and debris from everyday life - inspired, partly, he says, by the mountains of garbage left behind by the tsunami.

"I thought hard about painting something realistic and dark about what happened, too, but in the end, I realised I can't do that. It has to be energetic and positive. If I try to draw about the disaster it would seem false."

So he returned to familiar terrain: pre-pubescent child. In a couple of paintings drawn after 3.11, his schoolgirls stare out of frames full of manic, kinetic energy but with a new addition: lettering. "Let's do it," says one. "Yes," says another.

"That's my way of saying 'OK, let's pull ourselves together'," says the artist. "That's better than making people sad."

The Hong Kong exhibition at Galerie Perrotin is his first solo show in the city, and is eagerly awaited.

Crammed with the iconography of contemporary urban Japan, and mixing street art with anime and manga influences, his six new paintings are expected to fetch anything up to US$200,000. "I'm not trying to draw anything sad or make people think or anything like that," he says. "That has no meaning for me at all."

Iwamoto is aware that his exhibition opens during a period of high tension between Japan and China, but accepts he's not the person to tackle politics.

"Japanese drama, manga and culture is really popular now with Chinese people," he says.

"I hear that Japanese TV soaps are broadcast on the internet. They've seen all our anime. I think my work is a way of showing a different side of Japan, not politics but popular culture. Hopefully others will see it that way too."


"Sweeet!", Galerie Perrotin, 50 Connaught Road, Central, October 4 to November 9