Friday, November 13, 2009

REVIEW: Travels with Yoshitomo Nara

(Nara: Nara Ysohitomo to no tabi no kiroku)

Released: 2007

Koji Sakabe


Yoshitomo Nara

Running time: 93 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

I had never heard of the artist Yoshitomo Nara before sitting down to watch Koji Sakabe’s documentary on him. In its ninety minutes and change, I was introduced to a good-spirited, ordinary enough guy whose tastes in fashion primarily consist of printed t-shirts. Following him from June 2005 to a little over a year later, the film shows his work habits, relationship with his creative partners, enthusiastic fan base and philosophies towards art and life in practice as he makes various stops around the globe showing his work.

Nara ’s paintings are peculiar, fascinating and beautiful. They mostly depict odd-looking children fixed in states of anger, melancholy or, in the later stage of his career, peaceful joy. Often, stars and galaxies swim in their large, expressive eyes. One segment focuses on Nara working alone (as he always does when painting) in his isolated Tokyo home and studio. We watch him as he creates a fresh painting from a new, blank canvas, drawing with different colored pastels, making the outline of a face come into sharper focus. When the painting is near completion, he stands back and, after a moment of contemplation, remarks that it is missing a “fundamental” touch before adding a few final brushstrokes.

As he works on this painting, there is a child’s drawing tacked up beside it with the following message written on it: “Dear Mr. Nara. Thank you for making me happy. From Sehee.” Sehee is a seven year-old Korean girl who, at the start of the film, attends a laid-back fan gathering for Nara in Seoul . She delightedly looks on as he signs a book of his art for her, then does a quick sketch of her face. The importance of him and his art to this little girl becomes more apparent a little later through a letter from her mother to Nara . She thanks him for helping her better understand Sehee’s own talent and passion for art, teaching her to properly encourage it for the sake of her daughter’s happiness and well-being. It is an extremely touching moment, and just one of many in the film that illustrate the good that art can bring in the world.

Among the trademarks of Nara ’s work are the small houses that he builds to show his art in with the help of Hideki Toyoshima of graf media (his key artistic partner) and numerous volunteers. He works with his “fellows” in constructing the houses in places as diverse as London , England and Yokohama , Japan . Nara describes the experience of sharing such group accomplishments as being similar to that of finding his first friend. Another place he visits is Bangkok , Thailand in December of 2005. His group is guided by a dedicated young woman named Kate whom Nara , to show their gratitude to her, immortalizes in a painting. In March 2006, sixteen new volunteers sign on in Osaka and work together, through rain and shine, to assemble a whole town of Nara ’s small houses for his AtoZ exhibition project. In July 2006, he dresses up in a giant rabbit costume and gleefully opens the gallery which, for three months, will attract a flurry of art lovers.

Whether celebrating with his helpers the construction of a new small house with cans of Asahi beer, hiding his face in embarrassment from several young female fans’ questions about when he will marry or enjoying a quiet morning in his studio and frowning in disgust at the taste of a box of soy milk, Yoshitomo Nara always comes across as a fascinating and down-to-earth individual who has the good sense to appreciate his fame while not regarding it too seriously. “Travels with Yoshitomo Nara” is easily comparable to another Japanese documentary about an artist that I saw recently: “Arungaku,” Tomohisa Takashi’s film about composer and video artist Takagi Masakatsu which screened at this year’s Shinsedai Cinema Festival. The painter and the musician are similar figures, in that both are humble, easy-going, greatly interesting people who care passionately about their art. And like “Arungaku,” “Travels” comes complete with a great soundtrack (including such artists as Bloodthirsty Butchers, Ogurusu Norihide and Eastern Youth) and makes for an engaging watch that will surely deepen your appreciation of artistic expression.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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