Japanese painting, fantasy and violence and the work of Kazuo Umezu

The Western gaze on Japanese painting is paradoxical, made up of both curiosity and incomprehension. On the one hand the Goncourt brothers for example in the 19th century which introduced Japanism in France which would influence impressionism, on the other hand the manga art that we have a time here reserved for the walls of the messy rooms of teenagers in revolt.

Nationalism in art, even xenophobia, are also realities, subjects which unfortunately are hardly talked about in the artistic and Western circles concerned. So it is with manga 漫画, i.e. Japanese comics. Among the banalities of conversation outside Japan on this subject, what are we talking about? We highlight the violence of the scenes represented in these general public cartoons intended for young readers. Interesting… but let’s go a little further and use in our analysis all the resources of the humanities and the history of art.

Isn’t it at least surprising to hear such criticism, violence I remind you, this form of Western contemptuous rejection of what comes from another culture that is globally misunderstood. Let us emphasize, however, if need be, that the very foundation of our genius (in the very etymology of the term) is based on the representations galore of killings, beheadings and scenes of torture. To be convinced of this, nothing could be simpler than to survey our museum rooms, paintings and sculptures attest to this.

Would it be sacrilege and irrelevant to consider at this point of our analysis the Christian iconography sourced in the Bible and its martyrology of the first centuries. Moreover, a fundamental element of European civilization and culture is expressed in this way, where the atrocious killing of a man mythologized as a god on the cross has been so trivialized that the instrumental materiality of his torture is erased? The mental image therefore becomes initiatory and acts as a catechesis. Truth below the Pyrenees, error beyond said Pascal (1623-1662)taking up an earlier formulation of Montaigne…!

Death and its representation and what surrounds it, but also violence, a certain idea of ​​ugliness thus percolates in our artistic imaginations and whatever the periods of history, contemporary or not. Let’s take a few examples.

Let us evoke for the XXth century the atrocity of the scenes of war and trenches of the war 14-18 ofOtto Dixthe nightmarish visions of Dado or the dark worlds of Velicovic at the end of the twentieth century. Earlier in time the engravings of Goya, a genius. Let’s continue further upstream in the first half of the 17thth century, the paintings of the suave and delicious Artemisia Gentileschifemale artist, charming daddy’s daughter, who paints Judith decapitating Holofernes Where Salome with the head of Saint John the Baptist ( Matthew (Mt XIV, 1-12) and Mark (Mc VI, 14-29).

Certain analyzes of these works, it should be specified, see in them in particular the resurgence through the act of painting of a psychoanalytical transfer following a rape of which she was the victim, a crime whose legal relationship is documented. To this short list, there is no need to develop further, the lists of painters and works could be long and tedious.

Judith decapitating Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656)

It is through theukiyo e 浮世絵by the technique of the print, which were known at the time of Manet for example the treasures of Japanese painting. Thus drawings or paintings, (the two terms merging into the same aesthetic fusion). The house of culture of Japan in Paris パリ日本文化会館 through its exhibitions has revealed to the general public, year after year, the extent of Japanese artistic heritage.

Hokusai 葛飾北斎 this crazy about drawing, as he defined himself, painted fantastic scenes and characters, his notebooks are like breviaries, primers of images, “universes of forms” to use a title that has become famous. What about Kunisada Utagawa 歌川国貞 (1786-1865) or Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1797-1861) this other master of the print.

What this fantastic print tells (see below) would make more than one shiver: In the palace of Soma, princess Takiyasha, daughter of Taira no Masakado (died in 940) and initiated into magic by the toad Nikuhisen, invokes the ghost of a giant skeleton. She reads a magic spell on her scroll and the ghost appears, frightening and repelling Oyano Taro Mitsukuni and his companion sent by the Emperor. He had already had Princess Takiyasha’s father assassinated, who was fomenting an insurrection against him. A real operating booklet!

Olécio partner of Wukali
ukiyo e
Princess Takiyasha summoning a monstrous skeleton in the ancient palace of Soma
Kuniyoshi Utagawa

However, it is well before in time, between the 14th and the 16th century at theMuromachi period室町時代 (1392-1573), which developed the fashion in the drawing of supernatural and strange characters, the Yokai 妖怪moreover highly prized by the Japanese public both in aristocratic circles with paintings on silk and in popular circles.

Contemporary Japanese artists have been able to draw their lines of inspiration from all of this culture and Japanese literature. In this respect, the fantastic, even the strange, or scenes that are very harsh in their emotional force, thus populate their works, whether for example in the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎 駿, cartoonist and director and one of the co-founders of studio ghibli 株式会社スタジオジブリ.

The world of manga, of course, and this is the focal point of this analysis, does not escape this source of inspiration. Some artists have flourished with this resource such as Kazuo Umezu. Recall that he got the Heritage Prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival 2018 for his movie i am shingo

I Am Shingo Trailer Kazuo Umezu

The now 85-year-old artist is prolific, popular, funny and whimsical. He begins his professional career very young, he is not 15 years old! After the war he worked for the kashibonya. These are bookstores that rented out low-priced books for Tokyoites (kashibon 貸本) for an on-site consultation. mainly manga rentals.

Very quickly Kazuo Umezu specializes in a particular genre, horror manga. His graphic work borrows a lot from cinematographic art. Its layout is particular, and the drawing has the function of restoring time, a sort of redundant unfolding of the action taking place. Each cell of the manga reproducing a visual, insistent and almost anatomical multiplication of the same detail, creating an emotional spiral for the reader. There is a strong sense of oppression. Moreover, the articulation of each cell of its layouts is subtly measured and positioned and the gaze circulates from page to page very quickly contributing to this impression of unease, horror, the desired goal.

Manga Kazuo Umezu
In the left hand of God
Kazuo Umezu

Scissors that pierce the eyes, from the inside, and move forward, penetrating the flesh until they come out completely, cutting the skull and slashing the face. It’s more than horror, or rather it’s exactly the overriding concept of cinematic horror: manifesting outwardly something that’s on the inside. It is a Freudian representation. It exceeds the worst nightmares of DaliandBunuel. It’s pure surrealism thus describes it brilliantly in a critical analysis mario pasqualini.

manga Kasuo Umezu
Kazuo Umezu

His editorial successes are considerable and many of his albums have become best sellers in Japan and around the world. Some titles translated into French: La Left Hand Of GodThe Devil’s Right Hand Where The cat-eyed boy.

Alongside horror manga, which he made a specialty of, he also dabbled in the genre of science fiction.

Kazuo Umezu is very present on Japanese television, he multiplies his interventions, makes films, he will even set up an orchestra.

After the winners of Angoulême comic strip festival in 2018 where he received the Heritage Award for Watashi wa shingo わたしは真悟( I am Shingo) he questions himself. He then devoted himself to painting. He would later say: It had been a while since I finished my last work in 1995, so I thought the time had come when I had to do something else after receiving the award.“, adding ” When you create something, it doesn’t make sense if you don’t make something new. “It was then that he devoted himself to creating a series of paintings rather than a comic strip.

It is these paintings (101 original works) that are currently the subject of an exhibition at Tokyo titled ” Kazuo Umezz The Great Art Exhibition and standing at the observation deck Tokyo City Viewin the neighborhood of Roppongi.

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Japanese painting, fantasy and violence and the work of Kazuo Umezu – Wukali