Makoto Aida: Eros with a Smile and a Sneer

When artists try to push our buttons, don't be surprised to find them groping for the highly sensitive crotch area, which has more than its fair share. This is certainly the case with Makoto Aida, who, in the past, has often been seen as Japan's artistic enfant terrible. In his attempt to get a strong reaction, the 44-year-old artist has so often hit the mark with his shots aimed below the belt that he is in danger of being perceived by the wider public as some kind of pornographic illustrator rather than a highly accomplished artist. The Erotic Review tracked him down to find out more about the erotic content of his work and whether he was happy to be viewed as the Japanese art world's equivalent of the smutty schoolboy chalking penises on the blackboard.

"I have also made many works that are not erotic and don't feature young girls, so please look at those too," he protests when I meet him; and, indeed, this is true. Among his other works, he has built a cardboard castle for Tokyo's homeless, done a series of mock children's paintings on such themes as Save Nature and Be Punctual, and even made a video of himself in the guise of Osama Bin Laden, to name a few.

But, interesting as such art is, for some reason it pales in comparison with the more sexual side of his oeuvre. Paintings like Giant Salamander (2003), featuring two naked underage girls draped over the eponymous amphibian, and The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora (1993), an epic evocation of Japan's notorious tentacle porn have an immediacy that is hard to beat; as do projects like 2004's Tokyo Style in Stockholm festival, for which he painted a naked Japanese model to look like cartoon characters in a Swedish park, and his controversial series of paintings, Dog and Edible Artificial Girls, Mi-Mi Chan.

So, why does sex keep popping up? Is it an obsession?

"Well, it's not just me," he replies. "In modern developed countries because of the amount of sex surrounding us, people have become something like monkeys in a zoo, masturbating on and off. Whatever is in my paintings is, in a way, entirely natural, because people have made such things."

This is a convenient way of avoiding responsibility for the content of his art, content which in many cases would give social conservatives sleepless nights and liberal feminists nightmares.

Giant Salamander (2003), in addition to being a beautiful painting, created using traditional Nihonga techniques, features two girls aged approximately 12 to 14, posed so as to provide an "ass shot" and a "cunt shot." Such convenient angling of female figures to permit intimate visual access is a common feature in the world of Japanese comics, where it is referred to as "fan service." But Aida rejects comparisons to Japan's otaku (geek) subculture of obsessive comic, animation, and computer game fans.

"I don't think my art has helped perpetuate that image of Japan, but now that you mention it, perhaps I might try to do so from now on," he replies with a laugh. "Creators express the features and mental essence of their own time and society, but, I myself do not read cartoons or watch animation, and I don't play computer games either, so I don't think that my art can be called otaku."

But what about charges of paedophilia that works like Giant Salamander give rise to?

"That painting has lots of meaning," he says evasively. "But the atmosphere that girls give off from the ages of 12 to 14 is something very special. It is a miraculous phenomenon and there is a very limited time to appreciate it."

It is possible to regard Giant Salamander as an idealized view of prepubescent feminine beauty and to see the sexuality in it as latent and harmless, but Aida's other works present a more active and explicit view of sex. A series of watercolours from 2001 called Edible Artificial Girls, Mi-Mi Chan equates the sexualized female form with food. Clearly tongue in cheek, these pictures show one naked girl being squeezed to extract salmon roe from her vagina to flavour a bowl of rice, and another girl, singed and roasted, looking at us with a passive smile as she is sliced like a piece of roast pork.

Still with a touch of humour but a lot more troubling are his Dog series of paintings, which invoke the strong strain of sadomasochism in Japanese culture and refine it to extreme limits. Painted with the clean lines and the purity of colour characteristic of traditional Japanese Nihonga painting, these pictures feature an innocent, fresh faced girl with a dog collar round her neck, whose limbs have been amputated and bandaged to render her completely powerless, dependent, and sexually available to her unseen master.

Her innocence is such that she seems oblivious of how badly she has been treated. Just as a dog will accept the fact that it has been castrated or had its tail docked then resume loving its master as if nothing has happened, the girl in these paintings seems equally devoted to her cruel exploitative master. This creates a powerfully sinister impression that recalls infamous examples of sexual abuse where a degree of passive cooperation by the victim was undoubtedly a factor, like the case of Josef Fritzl and his daughters or the 44-day captivity and murder of the Japanese schoolgirl Junko Furuta in 1989. Doesn't Aida feel any guilt about creating such brutally unromantic imagery?

"Perhaps a little," he responds. "But because I didn't make it happen, I don't think I feel particularly guilty. With this work I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the Taisho era [1912-1926]. This girl is like a Taisho period beauty."

A Freudian analysis might see the amputation of her limbs as a comment on the "passive aggressive" nature of Japanese womanhood, who symbolically enfeeble their limbs by wearing dangerous platform shoes or by decorating their hands with ridiculous fake nails, all to exert control over men, but not Aida.

"That's a very interesting theory," he responds. "But when I'm making such art, I'm the type of person who doesn’t really think too much about things from the side of the woman."

The Erotic Review
October 2009

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