Kawaii Be Damned! 5 Eerie Artworks That’ll Have You Scratching Your Head
Kawaii (the Japanese word for “cute”) rears its adorable head just about everywhere in Japan — and not just in popular culture or down at the mall, where you’d most expect it to be. You’ll find it in schools, on public transport, at banks, and even on Buddhist temple grounds.
But we’re only human, and variety is the spice of life…
What if you’ve had enough cuteness for one day?
Sometimes the only remedy is to go dark, dreary, creepy, and eerie. And what better accompaniment than art, a medium that in the absence of a definitive answer can be unsettling to its very core?
In this blog, we’ll guide you through our top 5 eerie artworks from Parabolica-Bis, a webstore and former art space in Tokyo. From strangely captivating to purely perplexing — and yes, even downright unnerving — they’ll offer you shelter from the kawaii storm.
Eerie Art #5: Oh, the Humanity
“Boy C, Navy Blue Jacket” (Miwako Yoshida)
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2013’s Shounen to Usagi (“Youths & Rabbits”), 2019’s Fragments
Details: A mainstay at Parabolica-Bis’s cafe and shop for years
Single artworks weaving multiple stories depending on where you look is nothing new: the Mona Lisa’s emotional ambiguity, for instance, has intrigued art aficionados and academics for generations. But what if those stories depended on where you’re looking from?
A glimmer of hope in one angle; longing and despair in the next.
Fear and apprehension from one side; courage and defiance from the other.
Who is this boy, and what has he lived through? What has he seen?
The possibilities seem endless — which makes the doll, ironically, all kinds of human. In a sad, mysterious sort of way.
Yoshida makes each doll’s outfit herself, aiming for a classic wardrobe that matches their individual personalities. Wool fabrics in navy, black, and gray help achieve this.
Eerie Art #4: Whatever You Say I Am
“My Animal Self, My Toy Self” (LIEN)
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2016’s LIEN/miRA [SELFY SYNDROME]
Details: Our true self may be far less glamorous than we think
Say you work in retail, it’s 10 minutes before closing, and in waltzes that one annoying customer who always stirs trouble. Boy, do you really hate their guts. Still, you bow and give your usual uber-genki welcome greeting (”Irasshaimase!”). After all, okyakusama wa kamisama — “the customer is God.”
It’s then that your colleague beside you stifles a chuckle and whispers this to you: “Me, zenzen warattenai.”
Literally: “There’s no laughter in your eyes at all.”
Implicitly: “You’re acting nice, but your aura screams ‘Get lost!’, and it shows.”
At the end of the day, we never really know who we are. We groom ourselves to be picture-perfect, but deep down we may just be damaged goods. What we assume to be our true self might merely be external perception: a reflection in the mirror, a photograph, a friend’s opinion of us…
That’s the kind of self-discrepancy this somber artwork highlights.
Politeness and formality are a staple of Japanese society. But so too is the dichotomy between one’s outward behavior (tatemae) and their actual innermost desires (honne). In a culture where image is important, harmony is cherished, and public contests are often deliberately avoided, this divide is made all the more concrete.
Perhaps the little white untruths born from that dichotomy are what made Japan rank 4th in this 2013 TV survey, which asked 100 people from 39 countries a simple question: “Do you often tell lies?”
Eerie Art #3: A Not-So-White Wedding
“Wedding” (Trevor Brown)
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2018’s Urbangarde 10th Anniversary
Details: Illustration for Japanese pop-rock trio Urbangarde
Shinto weddings are a solemn affair — and understandably so.
Modeled after the actual marriage ceremony of Crown Prince Yoshihito (the eventual Emperor Taisho) at the Tokyo Imperial Palace in 1900, the concept of purification and tradition permeates the entire occasion. The bride’s snow-white garments symbolize her being imbued with the “colors” of the groom’s family — its customs, its traditions, the whole gamut.
…But none of that applies here.
Gone is the chaste imagery of a white wedding — and in its place, a bride stained crimson (presumably the likeness of Urbangarde vocalist, Yoko Hamasaki). The only color she’s been imbued with is blood red.
Are those blotches or bullet holes that pepper her flowing kimono?
Was it violence or romance that caused those bruises on her neck?
How has the celebration of a new life devolved into a representation of death?
Plenty of questions remain, but so too does the intriguing urge to further explore the eroguro and Urbangarde abyss.
Japan-based, UK-born artist Trevor Brown devotes himself to an art style known as eroguro (a portmanteau of “eroticism” and “grotesque”), which focuses on “eroticism, sexual corruption, and decadence.”
Eerie Art #2: Chibi Horror Picture Show
Title of Artwork
“Petit” (Tari Nakagawa)
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: Release event for 2018’s Monogatari no naka no shoujo (“The Girl in the Story”)
Details: Small mascot dolls exclusively bundled with the above book
Ghastly off-white faces and empty eye sockets aren’t exactly things to fawn over. Neither are descriptions like “leather kid body” (presumably kid leather) or “growing doll” (what this means is anyone’s guess, but at least we can rule out haunted dolls that grow human hair), for that matter.
As such, like the other artworks on this list, we venture that kawaii was not specifically on the agenda during creation. And yet there’s a certain charm to these little guys that can’t be denied — from their colorful patchwork outfits, to their small stature, to their simple digitless limbs.
Why are all these critters dressed so lavishly?
Why do animal heads rest on clearly human bodies?
The answers may be more unnerving than the actual art itself.
Japanese society’s obsession with chibi might be more scientific than you think:
Tiny, carefully made items [may] bring us joy because they make us want to play. [Cuteness] triggers not just a protective impulse, but also a childlike response that encourages fun.
Eerie Art #1: Cries and Dolls
“The New Duchess” (Tari Nakagawa)
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: Release event for 2019’s Kotori-tachi (“Little Birds”)
Details: Ball-jointed doll made to complement the above book
Ball-jointed dolls feature spherical joints and elastic inner frames, allowing for more unrestricted movement than standard varieties. Coupled with their detailed visages and delicate anatomy, they’re an eerie celebration of the human form — even if, at times, that form is twisted, bent, and broken.
There’s an unmistakable artistic beauty here that prevents us from looking away. We wouldn’t go so far as to call it morbid curiosity, but still…
Dull, lifeless gaze.
Sunken, hollow features.
Stern, pursed lips.
These are no Barbies, that’s for sure.
And yet, given that their popularity is enough to warrant a huge annual expo (Dolls Party) centered around them, they may very well be just as iconic — right up there with more traditional Japanese dolls.
Inspired to make a few dolls of your own? Nakagawa holds workshops three times a month in Sapporo where you can flex your ball-jointed muscles.
Cute & Creepy: It’s a Balancing Act
Kawaii is a colorful, cutesy juggernaut — and if the so-called pink globalization is anything to go by, its domestic and global reach will only continue to grow.
By no means is that a bad thing.
Light needs its darkness.
Heartwarming moments need mystifying unease somewhere down the line.
So it’s nice to know that Parabolica-Bis and other advocates of alternative culture exist to provide that balance — and that they’re closer to us than we might think.
Eager to Start Collecting? Visit ZenPlus!
The dolls and other works covered here are largely “one of a kind” in nature, so blink and you’ll miss them.
However, ZenPlus does currently have one very special ball-jointed doll available.
It comes to us courtesy of renowned Hokkaido artisan, instructor, and Parabolica-Bis collaborator Koitsukihime.
Check out the photos below to get a feel for Koitsukihime’s iconic art style!
Over to You!
Are you a kawaii collector, or an advocate of eeriness?
What strange art has left you reeling recently?
ZenPlus is your one-stop shop for all things Japanese. Pop on over to our new website for art and other goodies direct from Japan!