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.
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.