By Aïda Camprubí
There are many ways to become a rebel, an insurgent and subversive. Taking a walk on the wild side of life is no party: it also implies controversy, hangovers and beatings. It’s less probable to be able to hit than to be hit. It implies becoming acquainted with death, and many people access that extreme situation through art. Jenny Hval says that, “In a flash they explain to your heart that you really are broken, or that you really are dying (sooner or later). But they also have a strong desire to tell you that it’s okay, that you can feel better. They are a way to make sense of your own impermanence.” But let’s not be so dramatic: getting in touch with our innermost side, so full of emotion but also of guts, can also be a pastoral and even humorous trip. We talk to Mia Álvarez, Oh Carol, Pussie Toys and Núria Just, all of them healthy artists and illustrators that approach noir sensibility from a standpoint as cute and terribly ironic as kawaii. Let’s put one little foot inside the bog and, if we like it, we can jump in headfirst.
Mia Álvarez describes it in a jiffy: “Noir kawaii comes from the sugar overdose of the “everything is cute.” Of the need to feel bad, because you learn from it and that makes you feel good. Of the balance that polarity can bring. One week after Mr. Wonderful came out, Mr. Wonderfuck did too out of sheer necessity. If you’re really feeling OK you don’t need so many positive messages. That obsessive need to repeat ourselves, ‘we’re going to be OK, we’re going to be OK’… Give me a break!”
“It’s much more genuine to be faithful to what you feel at each given moment,” Carol goes on, and for the newcomers, she adds: “kawaii is a Japanese expression meaning ‘how cute!’ It’s always small, with exaggerated limbs and rounded corners, like a puppy or a baby. It seems quite simple, but it has very specific aesthetics. And when you reach its darkest side, there’s no limit.”
Mia, the most veteran of them all, contextualises this: “My first contact with something similar to kawaii was Osamu Tezuka’s universe, who mixed Japanese-style drawings with pretty Walt Disney illustrations. In parallel, kawaii adapted to European design generated characters such as Miffy the bunny rabbit, drawn by Dutch Dick Bruna, which would later inspire Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, originally illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. In Japan, kawaii culture is used everywhere. Each company, even each prefecture in the country, has its own mascot, like here -at a smaller scale- we had Naranjito, Curro, Cobi or Petra, which was the Paralympic mascot and hence had no arms, in a very noir kawaii style.”
“It’s a strategy to attract attention, it humanises the company and it also generates a greater bond with the audience,” Clara, from Pussie Toys, explains. “In fact, in Japan everything has a face, even food. They put eyes on doughnuts! Here we wouldn’t be able to eat them, because we would think of a person and it would seem gore eating it up, but there it’s quite normal. And if anyone hates the current popular mascot they will always be able to find its antisocial reverse.” Have a look at the joyful tediousness portrayed by Gudetama as described by Victor Navarro, at San-X’s Sumikko Gurashi, the anti-mascot that rejects human company, and its national equivalent, Michopocho, the crestfallen cat.
In the land of the rising sun, even Moe (“blooming”, “dear”) female characters have some peculiarity that helps them gain the sympathy of fanatics. And this ideal of beauty implying something bizarre, the mirror effect created by weakness, fits in quite well with Baudelaire’s ideal: “Beauty is always bizarre. I do not mean to say that it is voluntarily, coldly bizarre, because in that case it would be a monster… I mean that it always contains a bit of strangeness, naïve strangeness, not intentional but unconscious, and it is this strangeness that causes it to be particularly Beautiful. It’s its main characteristic. Reverse its proportion and try to conceive banal beauty!” The poet also says, according to Antoine Compagnon, that the strange isn’t always beautiful, but that the beautiful is always sad.
But noir kawaii isn’t only sad, it has a much more sordid component and it’s considered a softer version of Shintaro Kago’s guro (which comes from “grotesque”), or eroguro (“erotic-grotesque”), and has also some hints of Teruhiko Yumura’s seventies punk manga. Mia says, “noir kawaii was born in Japan in parallel to its antagonist, created by the likes of Junko Mizuno and Luke Chueh. That duality has always existed there, because it’s a country that has suffered a great deal. Its situation on the fire line of China, Russia and the two Koreas, its wars and isolation or the atomic bomb that fell over Hiroshima and Nagasaki… There are many references to radioactivity, for instance, or to black rain, or to people disintegrating. It’s all very rooted, it’s collective trauma.” It’s tricky to create the DNA of a civilisation from a wound, but there’s where some of the most telluric pieces spring.
“To be able to work with art is to be able to see things beyond the political” -quoting Jenny Hval- “I think you have to let go of certain things if you can, and that is different for every artist, because if you just see things from the political then quickly your brain becomes about the censorship of many things that actually have a lot of artistic value.” As for Mia’s personal experience: “I stopped fearing this type of drawings when I saw I could control them. I wasn’t sure what they might wake up in me and so I rejected them, but later I had some experiences that made me get more in touch with reality and I ended up accepting that it’s all part of life. When someone has a car crash, there’s an instant in which their face explodes, and that’s the frame”.
Where’s the limit? Some key noir kawaii characters, like Gloomy Bear, which devours the kid who adopted him, or Pedobear, which “follows kids, looks at them and doesn’t do anything bad to them, but whose attitude can be freely interpreted and it’s of course misinterpreted. It plays with the context in which it’s placed, if you see it by itself it’s clearly just a kawaii bear,” says Mia. Most Japanese people won’t feel outraged before these attitudes in the same way in which in our society we have assumed “the pig in the butcher’s logo with a leg missing, or holding sausages made out of its own meat or dressed as a butcher, which out of context would be violent and follows a very noir kawaii premise,” Núria Just adds, and she goes on “there are some examples that follow a snowball effect, start going down the slope, unstoppable, and their humour becomes bigger and more sadist, as is the case of Electric Retard, although it has little to do with kawaii”.
“The moral of the story is that the fact that it’s cute doesn’t mean it’s inoffensive – Carol explains- and when something annoys you so much, you need to ask yourself why it can affect you at that level”. For instance, Oh Carol hasn’t joined the ranks of the aesthetically more gore kawaii -i.e. noir- but says that, “I draw a woman with breasts that were a bit sagging for my series Physically not acceptable club and some of my followers went bonkers.” Even though normal tits are really like that, falling down mid thorax. “I draw something I thought should be natural, and I decided not to enter the debate. People show their true colours through their comments.”
Oh Carol has also published the fanzine Your Nudes Are Safe with Me, where she analyses how personal material circulates in new social media, where we share our most intimate side with people we barely know, probably provoking certain consequences. These first experiences in which you play with fire and burn in order to learn are what the exhibition Whatever, premiered on the 19th of November at The Gallery, by Error in Barcelona, show and in which different national artists exhibit the most thuggish side of kawaii. There’s gore, sadomasochistic aesthetics, disregard and illustrated hooliganism, some of the attitudes of dark blue, almost black, kawaii, in its national version.