Certain circumstances make it difficult to discuss painting in Japan in the modern era. For one thing, there is the belief that there was no fine art in Japan until the Meiji Restoration, when it was imported along with the Western conception of art. If this were true, things would be simple: Japan would have continued to import, absorb, adapt, and eventually transform art into something uniquely Japanese (similar to what happened in the fields of science, engineering, or animation).

In reality, however, even though there may not have been words or descriptions to match the western idea of art, profoundly artistic concepts (such as ‘hana’ or ‘yugen’) and objects treated as fine art (expertly made handicrafts, ukiyo-e, picture scrolls, etc.) have always been part of the Japanese cultural spirit, albeit in a different form than in the west. But, the argument goes, without the Western concept of art, there could not have been art either (nonchalantly excluding the entire field of handicrafts from being art, etc.).

Thus, a strange unconscious dilemma emerges, where art has existed all along, yet also not really, which has made it difficult for Japan to apply its unique skills (observing, understanding, imitating, internalizing, transforming, adopting, and making Japanese) to the field of fine arts. As a result, Japan’s ties with the fine arts have remained somewhat superficial.

The point is perhaps better illustrated by a counterexample. Both fashion and architecture existed in Japan prior to the Meiji period, in forms different from those of the West, and yet they have been successfully merged with their Western counterparts, to much acclaim from the West, no less. Their differences suggest that both forms have a rich world of their own, that both can offer well-founded valuable perspectives. They are two of the few examples of the West positively, actively, and respectfully embracing contemporary Eastern culture.

In the fine arts, however, we have inadvertently compartmentalized our artistic form into its category, ‘Japanese painting,’ separating it from ‘western painting’ (or, effectively, ‘painting’), thereby conceding by definition the above mentioned problem of art having arrived in Japan only with the Meiji period. The result, unfortunately, was a blind, reverential adherence to the Western painting tradition (fueled by a strange inferiority complex) and the repression of any feelings of doubt or dissatisfaction to the depths of the unconscious.

Japanese artists studying Western paintings share several uncertainties. Why must I paint female nudes? Why must I use outlines? Why is black not a color? Why am I supposed to blindly follow all these conventions?

Convincing yourself to accept these values in your head nonetheless—they are, after all, the foundation of superior Western painting!—means willingly ignoring a part of yourself that revolts, rejects, cries out in protest.

I cannot help but think that the difficulties faced by art students who struggle to paint, the ambiguity clouding their judgment, and the provisional assumptions and confusions of their adult art teachers are the cause of terrible anguish and predicament.

What happens to a genre that denies artists their own aesthetic sense of affirmation, and whose standards of judgment are, by default, set by Western conventions (or their willing proclaimers)? Or, to put it less literally, can we expect a timid child who always defers to the word of their parents in matters of right and wrong, choice of goals and what to think about the world to become a truly expressive, creative individual?

In my opinion, the subjective self is at the heart of all expression—not only in the arts but especially so. One’s judgment should be based on one’s own aesthetic sense, and a work of art should first satisfy the artist who creates it.

It is this principle of self-satisfaction that drives and enables truly good art. But a recent tendency in the arts has been to downplay the importance of subjective sensibility and demand objectivity and social relevance from the outset. No matter what art form or genre, works created with the intent of pleasing viewpoints foreign to the artist’s own can never truly touch our souls.

The artist Aoi Fujiwara faced similar difficulties as a student, struggling to reconcile her creative aspirations and energy with the work she produced and to find a style that suited her. The turning point for her came after she went to the UK in her fourth year of university. After presenting work in various styles, her teacher asked her: ‘Why paint like this? There must be something more relevant to your own life, like anime or manga.’ Having gone to great lengths to study Western culture, it was this comment that made her feel comfortable with her art. She realized that it was okay to embrace the environment she knew and grew up in; that she should not reduce her own experience to an inconsequential triviality.

Away from Japan, she had the epiphany that there was value and meaning in making art about something she loves, knows, and is passionate about. Things clicked into place and Fujiwara, with all her energy and strength, became like a fish in water. Only two months after returning to Japan, she created a masterpiece and won the 2017 Mitsubishi Estate Co., Ltd. Prize at the Tokyo Marunouchi Art Awards.

When art students suffer from a lack of subjects to paint, often the real problem is that they are not allowed to paint what they want to paint. In Fujiwara’s case, this happened to include anime and videogames.

Let us take a closer look at her work. A cursory glance at the history of the medium suggests that what painters particularly aspire to express is light and motion—two qualities that are absent from paintings themselves. Masters from all eras and cultures have developed different methods and approaches to painting light (Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Monet, etc.) and movement (Hokusai, the Heiji Monogatari Emaki, Cezanne, the Cubists, Klee, Mondrian, etc.).

Fujiwara’s own approach involves borrowed elements from anime and the flickering effect of complementary colors and strong contrasts (‘chika-chika,’ the Japanese onomatopeia for ‘flicker,’ also conveys a sense of motion). Her technique is not entirely unprecedented—the flickering effect achieved by Mondrian’s close juxtaposition of primary colors in ‘New York Boogie Woogie’ is a prime example of motion expressed in abstract painting, and the inversion of ground and figure in Hokusai’s work or in Cubist paintings also creates a kinetic effect in the mind of the viewer.

Moreover, Fujiwara’s fluorescent, active colors and slightly gimmicky perspectives might nudge viewers familiar with anime and manga to subconsciously image the before and after of depicted scenes. Insofar as this leads to a perception of movement, it may present a novel approach to representing the flow of time in painting.

Of course, the fact remains that paintings themselves are static rather than in motion. Fujiwara further enhances the element of movement in her work through the enormous scale of her paintings (three to ten meters!). The viewer almost cannot help but walk around in front of her work, looking at details from up close, letting it fill 180 degrees of their field of vision, panning across the surface, moving away for a panoramic perspective, and experiencing painting’s time almost like a movie—a pleasure unique to large scale paintings.

Now that we understand the importance of light and movement to the medium of the painting, I would like to further explore the fascination of Fujiwara’s work by touching on its existentialist aspects. Existentialism, as a complex philosophical term, is difficult to define, but for our purposes it should suffice to think of it roughly as the inner struggle of the individual.

In the last hundred years, there has been an increase in art forms and artists who channel inner conflicts and psychological malaise through their work (the Japanese I-novel and expressionist painting being just two examples.) At first glance it may seem difficult to find such personal conflict in Fujiwara’s paintings. After all, they appear cheerful, carefree, and energetic. But once we understand that Fujiwara creates out of a constant search for self-affirmation, that her work is in fact a battleground to fight against her fragility and shattered spirit, we begin to hear a deep roar reverberating from beneath the flittering, fluorescent colors of her paintings.

Today’s society expects us to be accommodating to those around us, to keep a smile on our face and to act cheerful regardless of our feelings. But no matter how strong the armor we put on our faces and hearts, on a subconscious level the body and mind continue to hurt. Many young people today suffer emotionally and physically, perhaps because they have to pretend not to hear their own inner cries, echoing the unconscious dilemma of modern Japanese art that I mentioned above.

But Aoi Fujiwara continues to create works with dedication, determination and an open heart, gradually healing herself in a process of self-affirming existentialism.

What might her future look like? It would be logical for her to create more refined, more detailed, more luxurious depictions of anime-inspired scenes. But no, wasn’t she a wilder, more unpredictable artist than that? Perhaps she will go in the opposite direction, embracing rougher brushwork and techniques that are more manual, analog, human. I would not rule out the use of AI technology either. Whatever path she may choose, I am filled with nothing but hope and expectation that her future work will be even richer and more accomplished.

Sakuji Yoshimoto