The Psychedelic 1970s Animations of Keiichi Tanaami: A Music Video for John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko!,” Surreal Tributes to Elvis & Marilyn Monroe, and More

If you want to see the West as you’ve nev­er seen it before, go to Japan. Since the end of the Sec­ond World War, there have been few big West­ern phe­nom­e­na in which Japan­ese cre­ators have not tak­en an inter­est, then turned around and made their own. One of the most pow­er­ful imag­i­na­tions among those cre­ators belongs to Kei­ichi Tanaa­mi, who came of age sur­round­ed by the likes of Mick­ey Mouse and Elvis after doing much of his grow­ing up amid the chaos and dev­as­ta­tion of war. Born in 1936 and still active today, he’s pro­duced a body of work whose ear­li­est pieces go back to the 1950s, and even the vari­ety of media he’s used — illus­tra­tion, graph­ic design, paint­ings, comics, ani­ma­tion — can bare­ly con­tain his ever-expand­ing vision, a mix­ture of pop cul­ture and and sym­bol­ic iconog­ra­phy drawn from Amer­i­ca, Japan, and deep down in his own psy­che.

“A mag­a­zine that is packed to the brim with human inter­ests and desires bears a strong resem­blance to who I am as a per­son,” Tanaa­mi once wrote, a descrip­tion reflect­ed by his cur­rent work as well as that of pre­vi­ous eras. Take these short ani­mat­ed films, three of which come from the ear­ly 1970s — an aus­pi­cious time indeed for his brand of psy­che­delia to break through in the West.

In 1971’s Good-Bye Mar­i­lyn, Tanaa­mi pays trib­ute to per­haps the most icon­ic woman Amer­i­ca has ever pro­duced; that same year’s Good-Bye Elvis and USA draws its inspi­ra­tion from quite pos­si­bly Amer­i­ca’s most icon­ic man. Tana­mi makes use of the imagery of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and Elvis Pres­ley in a way no oth­er artist has, though he was hard­ly alone in his fas­ci­na­tion with the very fas­ci­na­tion those fig­ures com­mand­ed: Andy Warhol, for instance, also got artis­tic mileage out of them.

It was Warhol who showed Tanaa­mi how artists of their sen­si­bil­i­ty could make a career. Tanaa­mi first saw Warhol’s work on a trip to New York City in 1967. “Warhol was in the process of shift­ing from com­mer­cial illus­tra­tor to artist, and I both wit­nessed and expe­ri­enced first­hand his tac­tics, his method of inci­sion into the art world,” Tanaa­mi once recalled. “He used con­tem­po­rary icons as motifs in his works and for his oth­er activ­i­ties put togeth­er media such as films, news­pa­pers and rock bands.” In 1975, after becom­ing the first art direc­tor of the Japan­ese edi­tion of Play­boy, he returned to New York to vis­it the mag­a­zine’s head office and took a side trip to Warhol’s Fac­to­ry and took in what Warhol and his col­lab­o­ra­tors had been up to with exper­i­men­tal film. But Tanaa­mi had already been mak­ing seri­ous inroads into that field him­self, as evi­denced by the two afore­men­tioned shorts as well as his 1973 ani­ma­tion of John Lennon’s “Oh, Yoko!” — a kind of ear­ly music video — up top.

Few artists of any nation­al­i­ty have hybridized the thor­ough­ly com­mer­cial and the deeply per­son­al as Tanaa­mi, who got his start in adver­tis­ing and not long there­after was design­ing the cov­ers for Japan­ese edi­tions of albums by Jef­fer­son Air­plane and The Mon­kees. But as he also said in a recent Hype­beast inter­view, “a lot of my work is dri­ven by old mem­o­ries of the past, espe­cial­ly the fear that I felt as a child dur­ing the sev­er­al wars that took place. The fear I felt see­ing a per­son dying. But then there’s also the good feel­ings I have from play­ing as a child. I inte­grate all aspects of my mind and mem­o­ries into my work.” You can see oth­er exam­ples of it at Ubuweb, and Tanaami’s 2013 ani­ma­tion Adven­tures in Beau­ty Won­der­land above shows how that inte­gra­tion has con­tin­ued, tak­ing as it does just as much from tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese sym­bols and design motifs as it does from the work of Lewis Car­roll — a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly thrilling and elab­o­rate aes­thet­ic jour­ney, all of it com­mis­sioned by the cos­met­ics com­pa­ny Sepho­ra.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch “The Mid­night Par­a­sites,” a Sur­re­al Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion Set in the World of Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights (1972)

Japan­ese Com­put­er Artist Makes “Dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans” in 1964: When Giant Main­frame Com­put­ers Were First Used to Cre­ate Art

Japan­ese Priest Tries to Revive Bud­dhism by Bring­ing Tech­no Music into the Tem­ple: Attend a Psy­che­del­ic 23-Minute Ser­vice

Psy­che­del­ic Ani­ma­tion Takes You Inside the Mind of Stephen Hawk­ing

Watch HD Ver­sions of The Bea­t­les’ Pio­neer­ing Music Videos: “Hey Jude,” “Pen­ny Lane,” “Rev­o­lu­tion” & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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