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Watch Early Animations by Tadanori Yokoo, the Unknown Pop Artist of the Japanese Avant-Garde

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Watch Early Animations by Tadanori Yokoo, the Unknown Pop Artist of the Japanese Avant-Garde
Still from Kachi Kachi Yama, 1965

The artist, designer, printmaker, and occasional animator Tadanori Yokoo is one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artists, though he remains relatively unknown in the West. Yokoo has been referred to as “the Japanese Andy Warhol” for his interest in pop culture and reproducibility, but his work is defined more by his dedication to hand-drawing and his extensive use of Japanese motifs like Mount Fuji. He’s best known for his posters, which upend the normally commercial nature of posted ads in favor of a highly personal visual idiom, but his departures into animation showcase much of his idiosyncratic technique.

Yokoo is part of the generation of postwar Japanese artists that includes Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama. Like these contemporaries, he embraced the (largely American) visual culture being spread in the early stages of globalization during the 1960’s. His work from this time filters psychedelic imagery and themes of idealized domesticity through his own, decidedly Japanese lens. This influence is especially visible in his animations, three of which have been collected as Yokoo’s 3 Animation Films by UBUweb.

In the first, KISS KISS KISS from 1964, images from American pulp romance novels and comics flash one after another—accompanied by a comical, squeaking soundtrack that seems to reproduce the sound of kissing. These couples are trapped in serious love scenes, looking longingly at one another as their lips lock. The ultra-closeups and subject matter are reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s work with comic panels, made all the more lurid here through their animation. 

The next piece, Kachi Kachi Yama from 1965, is a freewheeling, cross-cultural lover’s adventure. It features cartoon versions of ‘60s pop icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Richard Burton, who are shown making love and being chased across a variety of settings. At one point, the screen flashes from an image of an Egyptian sarcophagus wrapped in the American flag to a group of disembodied heads that can only be the Beatles (all four float on top of a Union Jack). Later, an angry posse (also bearing a striking resemblance to the Fab Four) pursues a cowboy couple through the American Southwest. They move toward a desert sunset that evokes the rising sun, a symbol of Japanese imperialism that remains controversial to this day. If that’s not enough for you, the short also includes a foot fetish scene, an aerial dogfight, and a mushroom-cloud explosion. 

Tokuten Eizou Anthology NO. 1 (1964) rounds out the collection. It's distinguished from the previous films by a collage aesthetic, incorporating photographs of real people alongside Yokoo’s lyrical drawings. Of the three pieces shown here, it's by far the hardest to read; the juxtaposition of Japanese advertising images with the bizarre doodles makes for a surreal viewing experience. Look out for the fluttering hands playing piano around the halfway mark, a nice example of Yokoo’s skill in making this style of cut-and-paste animation seem fully dynamic.

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