Surrounded by computer cables, color glitches, and bright wigs, a young Japanese girl opens new frontiers for expression in the unique aesthetic of otaku culture.
Her name is Julie Watai. She began her career as a photographer, publishing her first photo collection, SAMURAI GIRL, through the Italian publisher DRAGO&ARTS in 2006. Since then she’s expanded into graphic art, modeling, and DJ’ing, at times even making noise as an electronics designer and “maker.”
A devoted gamer and manga fan, Julie works at the edges of “otaku culture,” “geek culture,” and “kawaii culture,” endlessly searching for hip new ways to capture the heart of her viewers and pushing the boundaries of subculture art.
“The word ‘otaku’ has a lot of negative associations,” she says. “My work is about finding ways to showcase its positive aspects.”
This article is an introduction to Julie’s art, combined with an interview that seeks to discover the girl beneath the persona, and the “otaku art theory” beneath her oeuvre.
It All Started with Akira and Ghost in the Shell: How Science Fiction Influenced Julie’s Style
Most of Julie’s photos are of young girls, and she does a lot of self-portraits as well. So far, she’s published two photo collections, SAMURAI GIRL and the more recent HARDWARE GIRLS, and she also puts out a photo magazine called HARDWARE GIRLS MAGAZINE. Many of her photos are available on her personal website, http://juliewatai.jp/.
Julie isn’t the sort of photographer who just looks for beautiful nature scenes and shoots them as them as they are, with no editing. But at the same time, her photos have a distinctive feel very different from the post-processing techniques that are popular today. Her visual style is the result of a multilayered editing process that synthesizes her photographic material using PC software, and the result can only be called a “parallel world” — one that really exists, but in a dimension somehow different from the reality the rest of us live in.
“My first priority is to create things that express my worldview — things that don’t necessarily exist in the world today.”
And the things that shape Julie’s worldview are none other than the manga, anime, and video games that define otaku culture in Japan. Julie says she began working as a photographer because she was heavily deeply by the worlds she saw in anime and manga, and she wanted to capture those worlds in photographs.
“I started taking pictures because I wanted to find a way express the flat world of manga and anime in three dimensions. ‘If I can visualize that worldview in a single photo, I’ll have accomplished my mission.’ That was what I was thinking at the time.”
Even the color and shading of her photos reveal how deeply otaku culture has influenced her. She says her lush, bring coloring style was inspired by TV anime.
The works that influenced her most when she was young were science fiction works like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. She says the “girl with machine” concept, which she uses in a lot of her photos, was inspired by Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed.
Android Love Story
In 2014, Julie caused a stir when she announced LOVE VALLEY, a photo series featuring portraits of herself with the female android ASUNA(AL-M 008X-01).
“It was really shocking the first time I saw ASUNA. My first thought was that she was really cute, but it was a different sort of ‘cuteness’ from the love dolls you see that are designed for men. It felt innocent, somehow, and I was inspired by her innocence and decided I had to photograph her.”
The result was a photobook that tells of a love story between a girl (played by Julie) and an android — the sort of parallel world that could only be created by an artist with a well-honed understanding of sci-fi. Photographing ASUNA, however, was not so simple. In fact, Julie says it brought its own kind of heartache into the process.
“The shoot was fun, but it was definitely very hard. Androids don’t have the same range of motion in their joints that humans do, and it’s hard to pose them in a way that looks natural. What robotics engineers say is really true: it’s very, very difficult conveying natural human movements in a machine.”
In addition to being influenced by otaku subcultures, Julie also identifies as a “tech geek.” Her photos are full of electronic gadgets, and recently she’s received attention for her work in electronic design. The inspiration for her foray into electronics came, she says, from meeting one the inventors of the Arduino circuit board in Italy.
“At first, electronic design seemed like a huge creative hurdle. But when I met Arduino’s creator, he told me ‘I want my invention to be used by artists, even if they’re not good at electronics. I made this because I wanted you to work with it, Julie.’ His words were an inspiration to me, so I decided to start working with Arduino.”
Once she figured out how to link her creative process with the technical principles of electronic design, Julie managed to clear her creative hurdles, moving beyond the boundaries photography and graphic design into the territory of a real “maker.”
The Buggy Furby
One of her most popular electronic works can be seen in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2011, which shows her “circuit bending” a Furby. Circuit bending is an audio hacking process that involves disrupting the current in electronic musical instruments or toys to produce unusual sounds or movements.
At the time, there were a lot of popular circuit benders among media artists in the USA, but almost none in Japan.
A popular internet rumor around this time claimed that “if you put a Furby in a microwave it’ll start making weird noises!” This rumor went up on message boards across the internet, and Julie decided she wanted to create a human-induced version of that effect by circuit bending a Furby. But she didn’t think it wouldn’t be very interesting just hacking a toy’s circuit board, so she decided to put on a maid costume while she bent the circuit and upload the whole thing to YouTube as a kind of surrealist demo video.
The video opens with Julie sticking a pair of scissors into the Furby. By the end, the toy has begun speaking some kind of space language — the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from Star Wars aliens or something.
The response was immediate, excited, and wildly diverse. “See? Japanese people really are crazy!!” “Is this what Japan does to women?” “OMG Will you marry me!!” These were just a few of the comments that popped up in the thread.
It was exactly the response Julie was hoping for.
“On one level, I just wanted to see if I could redesign a Furby, but I was also worried about what sort of reaction the video would get on YouTube. A while ago I gave a speech at China’s Maker Faire, and when I showed them the Furby video everyone in the audience started laughing. I was happy that what I’d done was funny to people all over the world.”
Kawaii-ifying Girls around the World
Today, Julie is stepping out of her territory as an artist and taking a stab at product development. Her first product is “Cell*Kira,” an in-camera light that can be used as a flash for when people take selfies.
Needless to say, Julie has taken a lot of self-portraits in her career, but whenever she took one with her cell phone, she was always annoyed that there was no in-camera flash she could use. What kind of flash would be right for all the young girls around Japan trying to take “kawaii” (cute) selfies? Julie used her personal experience to explore the problem, and designed a ring-shaped light that can be attached to a smartphone.
As soon as it went up on social media, the idea got a huge response. In a way, that isn’t really surprising: now that selfies are a global phenomenon, it’s undeniable that a huge number of young girls are looking to take “kawaii” self-portraits. Julie plans to start a crowdfunding campaign on kibidango to produce Cell*Kira. What started as one Japanese artist’s pet project may end up changing selfies all over the world.
(Of course, that wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. After all, the selfie stick was invented in Japan.)
A New Era for Otaku Art
So far we’ve focused on introducing Julie’s products and projects, but maybe the most challenging thing about her work is the issue of how few major artists in the world have such deep roots in otaku culture. Superflat creator Takashi Murakami may have gotten famous trying to absorb otaku culture into the fine art world, but it was only recently that this thing called an otaku was recognized as “cool” in mainstream society. Subcultures, generally, tend to inspire negative stereotypes, and otaku are no exception to the rule.
We asked Julie how she feels about being an artist who tries to convey the world of otaku culture.
“When I started doing this, my goal was to create really amazing art that would make people go ‘what?! Is this what’s cool now?’ There’s no reason ‘otaku’ should have to be a negative thing! This stuff, all of it, shows the world how cool we are! Anyway that was the kind of thought process I had. I wanted to get rid of the negative image of otaku and help create a positive one.”
But for otaku culture to be recognized as “cool,” she would need to find a positive way of expressing it. Julie’s art gives of a strong “pop” vibe, but a pop vibe that seems steeped in an otaku sensibility whether it shows otaku elements (wires, wigs, collectible toys) or not. And when someone who does identifies as a “geek” looks at her work, he can have the experience of sinking into a world even deeper and stranger than what he thought he knew about otaku. According to Julie, a lot of creative people have shown up recently who want to express the “coolness” of otaku. Even fashion designers are getting in on the act.
“There are already a lot of people already who are fascinated with otaku, so a new wave of people has shown up, and all of them are saying ‘even though this is otaku, I want to make it cool!’”
chloma, the fashion brand the provided clothes for LOVE VALLEY, has introduced clothing lines that offer an interesting fusion of otaku culture and mode fashion. The brand’s designers are definitely part of this “new wave” movement to make otaku cool.
“I Want to ‘Be’ A Free Wi-Fi Hotspot!”
Julie says she wants her existence as an artist to be “like a free wi-fi spot.” In that statement, she may be revealing everything about her creative values.
“Being the kind of thing that gives the people around you something for free — I think that’s really beautiful. I think art has that kind of ‘free beauty’ aspect to it too — the sort of thing that, maybe, can give people new energy or laughter, without asking for anything in return. If I could ‘be’ that for people, that would be the best thing ever.”
Julie has already given exhibitions in Europe, but she’s yet to experience the art scene in America. She says she’s looking forward to doing something in New York, and has a lot of expectations for the work she’ll do in the US. What kind of reaction will Julie get from the Brooklyn art scene? We’ll see what happens when otaku culture “hacks” the New York art world!
(translation: Michael Craig)
Originally published at ignition.co.