“It is spirit, not painting” Makoto Aida says in the closing frame of Japan Society’s video for the exhibition “Bye Bye Kitty” in New York. (the link to the video is at the end of this post).
Today I want to present Makoto Aida’s work “Harakiri School Girls”. This is a composition that recurs in the artist’s activity. It first appeared in 1999, when the artist wanted to create a poster for his first solo exhibition. What attracted me to the painting is the 2002 print on film with acrylic, which you can see immediately below.
I am a fan of manga, the Japanese comics. So I was immediately attracted to the picture, as it looks like manga in a way, but when you open the door and get in it is something totally different. I am also fascinated by the bright neon lights in Tokyo’s streets, the advertising billboards, the extremely crowded and chaotic urban scenes. I could find elements of all these in the picture. So I present to you all three versions I could find, the original 1999, the “flashy” 2002, and the more etherial 2006, along with some commentaries.
“Harakiri School Girls combines the fetishistic fashions and nubile bodies of fantasy schoolgirls with the time-honored samurai practice of ritual suicide.”
(Source: Japan Society’s “Bye Bye Kitty“)
“Hara-kiri Schoolgirls” is typical of the images by Japanese multimedia artist Makoto Aida, who has created numerous series portraying mutilated young women as consumer goods. This image is intentionally shocking: according to the artist, it combines beauty and violence in order to challenge deeply rooted ideas about Japanese beauty and bring to light elements of the grotesque.
(Source: Jewish Museum, Berlin, Made in Japan)
“Several of the artists borrow from archaic Japanese pictorial conventions, only to skewer them with a contemporary nihilist sensibility. Makoto Aida’s brightly colored “Harakiri School Girls” emulates the style and violent subject matter of the 19th-century artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, but the atrocious acts pictured — ritual suicides, beheadings and disembowelings — are performed by pretty, uniformed schoolgirls, a possible reference to a culture that has lost its bearings.”
(Source: Artkabinet, Elisabeth Kirsch)
“During the late nineties, as gal culture was running rampant, Aida became intrigued. “I think those kogals in the 1990s were originals,” he says. “Historically and even globally, they were unique, and I sought a way to portray them.” Inspiration came from a group of high school girls squatting on the ground in Shibuya. “The scene reminded me of besieged warriors who have decided to commit mass suicide.” Out of this, Aida created Harakiri School Girls, originally as a poster to advertise his first solo exhibit in 1999, and later as a painting for the Singapore Biennale 2006.
Laced with dark humor, the work shows a group of uniform-clad schoolgirls plunging samurai swords into their stomachs, disemboweling themselves, and slicing off their own heads. The flash of a blade creates a rainbow in the blood spurting from a girl’s neck. A stream of blood flows past a curious kitten, karaoke flyers, and discarded tissues, into a drain. The work is gruesomely cute. “Harakiri School Girls is an allegory for the distorted mentality of Japanese youth at the time and the atmosphere of Japanese society,” Aida explains. “After the Bubble Economy collapsed, I felt that an air of pessimism was spreading through Japan like a virus.” Everything might have looked cute and happy, but underneath that veneer seethed dejection and darkness. During the nineties, the number of suicides increased year by year, and according to Aida, Japanese patriotism withered away. These schoolgirls, in their loose socks and school uniforms, symbolize the entire country, killing itself.”
(Source: Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, by Brian Ashcraft and Shoko Ueda )
The Schoolgirl Body in Pieces: The Manga Portraiture of Makoto Aida
Manga has been an established form of popular expression in the Japanese visual field for centuries. During the postwar era, manga reflected a cultural shift in the identity of the national body, as a formerly cohesive imperial nation fell into fragments in the wake of defeat and control by American military forces. Framed by this shift, the manga renditions of brutalized and sexualized Japanese schoolgirls by the contemporary Japanese artist Makoto Aida convey elements of a nation’s fractured identity still shaped by it’s postwar temperament and global positioning. Certain moments of Japan’s present-day manifestations of postwar trauma find revitalized visual expression when inscribed upon the bodies of these girls, revealing the psychic role of the body in postwar and present-day Japan and how national memories of the past are constructed through bodily tropes. Aida’s appropriation of these bodies also reveals the engagement of the wound with historical memory, and the unstable constructions of female sexuality and identity that linger in contemporary Japan.
The narrative of the male fantasy in which a young girl is desired, attacked, stimulated, and brought to ecstasy has been present in Japan since the 1970s, persisting as a major trope within manga and anime. Graphic depictions of sexualized young girls play a major role in contemporary Japanese visual culture and because of this, “she” has become a highly readable and visible format from which to instigate social criticism and expression. I would like to suggest that the immediate and cursory misogyny that is visible in Aida’s depictions of young girls borrows from these pornographic genres as a subversive gesture that re-appropriates this bodily narrative vessel for social commentary. An examination of Aida’s imagery unveils the social forces shaping the artist’s source material, the implied spectators and their habits of bodily consumption.
I will discuss two of Aida’s manga works in which the young girls are presented with varying degrees of agency and submission when confronted with their brutalization. With Harakiri Schoolgirls (2006), the girls are depicted in a more individualized and essentialized manner. Here, a bevy of vibrant, uniformed Japanese schoolgirls commit stylized acts of self-inflicted suicide (harakiri) and decapitation. Of Aida’s schoolgirl imagery, this piece is unique in that the girls retain a certain control over the fatal violence. The second series, The Edible Artificial Girls, Mimi-chan (2001) is an example of Aida’s work in which the girls are presented en masse and in pieces as the main ingredient in an array of delicious Japanese dishes. Mimi-chan works as Aida’s hyper-realized riff on the dominant characterization of Japanese girls as the ultimate material consumers and the problematic consumability of these bodies. A portrayal connected to the ideological commodification of the female body that was conceived during the postwar era.
(Source: Maya Kimura’s Thesis Abstract)