Yoshitomo Nara and the clash of innocence and menace

Discussing the work of Yoshitomo Nara, his influence and the story behind his art.

Photo of a room with a statue and drawings on the wall

You might be familiar with Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s work, which often features a young child (often a girl) with large, charming eyes. He is a contemporary artist who features avant-garde concepts in his paintings. Recently, his work has become extremely popular with Gen Z with his art going viral on various social media platforms such as TikTok. Many agree that his work is aesthetically pleasing and cute, but is that all he is trying to portray?

The subjects of his work are usually children, and they often hold weapons, creating a stark contrast between the cuteness of the subject and the danger of such weapons. This reveals “emotional complexities from resistance and rebellion to quietude and contemplation,” according to the Pace Gallery. Moreover, he uses this cartoonish, animated style of painting to capture a culmination of contradictory childhood emotions and anxieties in one subject.

His inspiration often comes from many factors such as his childhood, contemporary culture, Japanese manga, anime, American cartoons and even rock and punk music. Moreover, his adorable art style is adopted and influenced by Japan’s “kawaii” (or cute) culture. Nara has also been influenced by the “superflat” art of Takashi Murakami, which refers to both the non 3-D style of Japanese art as well as critique on the shallowness of consumer culture.

Philistines often don’t understand Nara’s art on a deeper level. His work has been trending on TikTok recently, and many Gen Z users love his work because of its cute style. Many have determined his work to be aesthetic and cute. However, what some don’t often see is Nara’s more cynical messages. His work hovers between two very contrasting images: childish innocence and violent adulthood. His work reflects the unease he felt being raised in post-war Japan, surrounded by fear and paranoia.

Nara’s Sleepless Night (Cat), 1999 reveals the stark contrast between cute and serious in his works. This painting depicts a girl with cat eyes and teeth. Being a child, she elicits innocence, yet the dark background and atmosphere the painting creates divulges something more menacing.

“Nara hints at the darker, wicked side of childhood that is sometimes overlooked. However, he also encourages us to think about the childish spirit lurking within ourselves as adults, one which is tinged with both fragility and a rebellious streak of malevolence,” said curator Rosie Lesso in an article for The Collector.

At first glance, most of his works present an adorable figure whether of young girls, children or animals. However, upon closer inspection, his work elicits a sense of uncomfortableness. Nara’s work revolves around concepts of loneliness, rebelliousness, disastrous events and cynical aspects of Japanese life such as earthquakes, war, nuclear weapons and tsunamis. All of these anxieties seep out of his works when scrutinizing the details in his work. The girls are often not smiling and depicted with dark elements such as fangs and bandages, revealing that something is wrong.

In 2021, Nara’s works were installed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. More recently, however, Nara has opened at The Art Gallery of Western Australia. This year, Nara’s first solo exhibition “Reach Out to The Moon, Even If We Can’t” was shown this year. The free exhibition runs from February 26 to June 25. This exhibition will reveal major sculptural works alongside paintings, drawings, ceramics and photography.

Nara will have an upcoming exhibition All My Little Words that will be shown in the Albertina Modern in Vienna, Austria from May 10 to November 1. It will encompass a multitude of mediums. Moreover, his work is shown on canvases and sculptures, and he uses more unconventional things as well such as napkins and envelopes.

Nara has many exhibitions that have started and are also coming up in the United States and internationally. In 2020, he was a part of “Connecting Currents” exhibition in Houston, and the exhibition will end sometime this year. In Boston, he is part of the “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence” exhibition from March 26 to July 16. Although these are the only two exhibitions in the U.S., there are more abroad, which can be found here.

Nara takes inspiration from various aspects of his life. It will be interesting to see how his art and the issues he focuses on evolves or follows a similar pattern throughout these various expositions as he continues to create art.