Sean Lennon & Toshio Saeki

Sean Lennon interviewed the great Japanese illustrator Toshio Saeki for LP0

SL: Do you believe in Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious? He felt that there were certain archetypes shared by all humans. To what degree do you think humans share a subconscious visual language?

TS: Your question reminded me of a phrase I saw somewhere: “a basement inside the mind that is common to and shared by all people.” It’s a rather interesting concept, but I’m afraid I do not have the answer to your question at the moment.

SL: We live in a world where violence and murder are a part of our everyday society. Governments punish people by death (in many countries, including America), and policemen and soldiers kill people all over the world. All of this violence is legal, and often considered heroic. Why must the government censor art–images they consider violent or wrong–but allow institutionalized violence every day? Why are people more afraid of images than actual guns?

TS: I live in Japan and I must say that I had little knowledge of the US government’s censorship and pressure towards art expression. In Japan, in everyday life and art expression, the exposure of genitals in public is illegal. I try to come up with ideas to hide genital parts in my work, but I don’t consider it a difficult thing. I’m confident that the essence of the visual image that I want to show will not be shaken by hiding the genital parts. Rather, I think it will help stimulate the imagination of the viewers.  Even if my work does not show explicit body parts, the late Dr. Timothy Leary wrote in a preface to a book of my work words of praise that I do not deserve. He called me “a wise, gentle, precise, chaotic erotic engineer.” In the coming future, works like these will be witnesses of the present time in history, when the understanding of “true culture” is poor.  Why do people censor art or become afraid of it? I don’t think I’m the one to answer that. Please ask those people.

SL: Why is it that after all the technology and connectedness given to us by the internet, the government is still scared of seeing images of sex or nudity?


TS: It’s a mystery to me.

SL: Now that we have computers, the art of painting and drawing are slowly becoming less a part of our basic education, and also less ‘necessary’ in the arts. How do you feel the loss of such skills will effect our society in the future? What is the cost of having less support of arts education in our collapsing global economy?

TS: I feel that arts education is not indispensable when one is trying to become an artist. It doesn’t seem like the art education I received is helping me now as an artist, and often, one can be bound by the teacher’s prejudiced views. I believe that humans will not easily let go of art–something that is absolutely essential to our lives. Even in primitive times, man was making art.

SL: Who are your favorite Renaissance painters?

TS: I like Pieter Bruegel de Oude, although he doesn’t belong to the Italian Renaissance.

SL: Who are your favorite Japanese traditional artists?

TS: Definitely Katsushika Hokusai.

SL: Do you have any contemporary Japanese artists that you like? From Yokoo to Tanaami? Do you like Miyazaki’s films?

TS: My favorite Japanese artist is a cartoonist, Yoshiharu Tsuge, although he is not a contemporary artist.  Among his works, I especially like “Hissatsu Surume Gatame,” which is a brilliant story about a man who finds out that his wife is sleeping with another guy. Tsuge depicts this anxiety and fear that every man seems to hold unconsciously, like a mysterious dream.  The purposely naïve pen drawing style gives a surrealistic feel to the story and is simply wonderful. I respect both Mr. Yokoo and Mr. Tanaami as pioneers that paved the way for other artists, like myself.  I like Princess Mononoke the best of Mr.Miyazaki’s films.

SL: I believe you and Miyazaki are perhaps the most known and loved artists in America. Who are your favorite American contemporary artists?

TS: Please excuse me for correcting you, but I have to say that considering Mr. Miyazaki and myself to be the most known and loved artists in America is not true. It may be true for Mr. Miyazaki, but definitely not for myself. I am happy that you might feel that way personally but regarding myself, I feel I am hardly known in America except for a few very kind fans.

I can’t think of any American contemporary artists that I admire at the moment, but I do like the Russian-born artist Mark Rothko. I feel that his work contains a bottomless sense of security and relief, and they envelope me with gentle silence and stillness. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I am getting older. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s work also seems to catch my attention.  The unsettling mood in her work feels very comfortable and physiologically pleasing to me.

SL: Are you a fan of American comic books? Like R. Crumb? Or Chris Ware?

TS: When I first started doing illustrations for publishing companies in 1972, I found 15 pieces of my work printed on 12 pages of a French art magazine called Kitsch that someone I knew brought home from Europe.  Also featured in the magazine was artwork by prominent artists such as Allen Jones, Richard Lindner, and Robert Crumb.  Crumb’s comics had fully exposed peckers everywhere, openly enjoying free liberation.  This was my first encounter with his comics, which I assume were prohibited to the public back then.

SL: You moved to Tokyo in the ‘Summer of Love,’ 1969. What influence did the hippie movement have on you as an artist? Were you influenced by the music scene in America and Europe?

TS: When I moved to Tokyo from Osaka in 1969, Tokyo was in the midst of a period of rapid reformation.  With the influence of the hippie movement from USA, all kinds of art and culture in Tokyo were bursting with energy in the dawn of a new era.  I can’t deny that it was during this time that I acquired the basic principles of my work, feeling this immense energy behind my back.

I wasn’t one of those kids with keen interest in the Western music scene, but I became very excited after seeing the film Woodstock. Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison are still my favorite musicians.

SL: Did you take LSD?

TS: No, I did not.

SL: How did your travels in Russia and the Middle East effect you? Were you able to go to America or Europe at all? Did you feel any connection to the rock n’ roll and hippie revolutions?

TS: When I was 21, I set out on a trip to the Soviet Union and Southern Europe, and traveled to Southeast Asia via boat on my way back. I headed out with very little money in my pocket but with a big ambition to see all that I can. I can remember vividly not the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but the shock that I felt seeing the sharply cut white canvas of Lucio Fontana in a display window in Venice. I doodled an erotic drawing on a wall of a bathroom in a dignified hotel in Zurich. I was very much satisfied with the way it turned out, but didn’t have a peace of mind to photograph it. I guess I must apologize to the hotel manager for that.  It was a very harsh trip, with very little money and language barriers, but I think it was a great training of the mind for the years to come after that. I made the trip just before the hippie revolution.

SL: When I asked you about Jung’s collective unconscious I was wondering about your idea of beauty or ugliness. What makes something ‘aesthetic’ to you? Are there universal beauties for all humans? A perfect breast, a sunset, a baby’s smile? Is there universal ‘ugliness’? Perhaps decay, putrefaction, disease, etc. In what way do you think beauty and ugliness have changed over the last century. Do they still have any meaning? Or has the line totally blurred?

TS: I live in a very old house in the mountains. A very long time ago, there used to be a big old steel drum in the bamboo grove opposite my house.  The steel drum was left there by some selfish person. The bamboo grove didn’t belong to me, so I couldn’t do anything about it, and would just observe it everyday.  For many many years, the steel drum was exposed to rain and wind, and finally, there came a time when it crumbled to the ground. But actually, the process of how the steel drum rusted away seemed unbelievably beautiful to me.  The steel drum returned to the earth, and now the bamboo grove is at peace.

No matter what it is, a subject can become both beautiful and ugly by the way the light shines on it or the mood of the onlooker.  It is perhaps the precious and foolish fate of humans that we continue to single-mindedly pursue this limitlessly uncertain “beauty.”

SL: When I look at your work, I feel a perfect connection between old Japanese masters and post-modern ‘radical’ pop art culture. Do you feel that it is important to study the past to be a great artist for the present?

TS: Whether an artist should study the past depends on the theme of what he or she wants to express.  But that person should also know that such studies can sometimes become strong fetters. It’s necessary to always possess both an objective viewpoint and flexible sensibilities.

SL: Are you optimistic about the future? Do you think humans will survive? Or will we destroy ourselves?

TS: It is a wonder to me, why you are so concerned about the future.

SL: Which is your favorite Yokai?

TS: Konaki-jiji.

SL: Are you superstitious? Do you believe in ghosts?

TS: I am not superstitious.

As for ghosts, let me tell you about an experience I had 12 or 13 years ago. In the middle of the night, I confronted a ghost. I felt its heavy weight on my body.  But in the end, I was convinced that the ghost was just my psychological and physical creation. Since then, I haven’t believed in ghosts.  I’ll save the details for another opportunity.

SL: Do you believe in the soul?

TS: What is a soul? I think that question needs to be answered first.  Superstitions, ghosts and the soul: these are all cultures created by and born out of the efforts of humans.  We don’t want to take this culture lightly.

SL: Do you think it is possible for art to change the world? As it did in the 60’s or even in the Renaissance? Or are people too desensitized to be receptive to art in a meaningful way?

TS: Art and music changing the world. I wish I could believe that such a thing could happen. We shall see…

SL: Do you have any advice for young artists? It took a long time for my mother to be truly appreciated, and I feel that your work as well is being more appreciated every day. Are you surprised that some people didn’t understand your work in the beginning? That it took so long for them to recognize? Did you know when you first started that your work would upset people so much? Or were you naively thinking people would understand it is as ‘just art?’

TS: When I was a young boy, I would draw my own kamishibai (picture story), and entertain the kids in the neighborhood with my performance.  I felt really happy that I was able to share a kind of mutual joy with them through the drawings that I made.  And I believe that what I do now is not that different from what I was doing back then.  My works have anxiety, fear, insanity, desire, sweet fishiness, nostalgia, and maybe even a gentle smile, thrown in here and there, to awaken the little ghost hidden inside the mind.  They are merely Toshio Saeki’s dream landscapes.

Ever since my debut, I never expected crowds of people to support my work.  This is because in our society, there exists “sensible people” who can’t understand that the brutality and sexual expressions in my work is not something that I encourage.  I must admit I call these people the “hypocritical sensible people.”

Recently, I was told that my solo exhibits in Tel Aviv and London were a great success. I’m rather perplexed by this phenomenon.

I don’t think I’m in a position to give any kind of advice, but to the young artists, I would like to say, please try to sharpen all kinds of sensibilities within yourself in your own special way.

SL: I could go on and on, but let me first see if this type of conversation is to your liking. If it is, and you would like to talk more, I am happy to do that. My mother would also be happy to speak to you. She sends her regards.

TS: Through this interview, I realized your sincerity towards mankind.  I spend my usual days in a mountain shack with shaky floors ready to collapse.  Everything is very laid back and quiet here, as I spend my days observing the birds and the Japanese rat snakes.  So your interview was something very inspiring to me, and the time spent thinking about the answers was very pleasant.  It would be great if we can have a fun conversation again in the future. Thank you. Please give my best regard to Yoko-san.

Toshio Saeki