Breaking the mold

Yukinori DeharaTokyo is tough terrain for emerging artists, but figure illustrator Yukinori Dehara has carved himself a niche in the rocky art landscape. Aiko Yokozuka reports.

At 26, illustrator Yukinori Dehara has already tasted success. This self-named "figure illustrator" is making a name for himself at home and abroad with his intriguing mix of clay models and photography - a genre of his own invention. Dehara's clay cast is a cross-section of realistic personalities and fictional fiends inspired by B-grade horror movies. Photographed in situations the artist steals from the streets and homes of Tokyo, the figures tell a black comedy of urban middle-class life. Over the course of three years and eight exhibitions in Japan and Taiwan, this young artist's characters continue to morph - Satoshi Yamamoto and his new best friend Morlin are his latest creations. You can view these two comical personalities in Dehara's current exhibition at Harajuku's Lapnet Ship.

Go figure
Influenced by the two-dimensional pop art of Tadanori Yokoo, Dehara double-hats as a freelance illustrator for magazines like Number! and Okane no hon when he's not dreaming up new scenarios for his figures. In Dehara's mind, the 48-year-old Satoshi-kun is a "very real figure in Japanese Society." The stereotypical salaryman, he is unappreciated and ostracized by his family and repressed by his culture. Dehara photographs Satoshi behind bars, puking in the gutter or visiting massage parlors with his best friend, the alien Morlin from the imaginary island of Pyu-pyu. The current Morlin & Satoshi exhibition gives visitors a chance to learn more about Dehara's vision of the typical Japanese family: Satoshi-kun, his strikingly exotic wife, Toshiko, 35, and their teenage daughter, Megumi, who is going through puberty, learning martial arts and is a lot tougher than her father.

In an earlier form Satoshi-kun was a college professor dating one of his pupils - the piece "Strike" showed him bowling with his nubile girlfriend - but today he is a family man. Despite the change in backstory, the idea behind the character remains the same. For Dehara, Satoshi-kun is the universal image of the Japanese oji-san (middle-aged man) - Japan's saddest figure, yet the backbone of its world-class economy. Once highly regarded, today's oji-san face disrespect and unemployment due to company restructuring. "I think it's interesting that oji-san are yelled at these days and I have fun creating figures of them," says Dehara.

On the other hand, Morlin is completely fictional, based on the grotesque and disgusting creatures of horror films, according to the artist. Created for the Zombie collection held in April this year, Morlin took shape by chance. "I wanted to make a creature no one had ever seen before and I started molding without any real concept." Dehara comments. With six eyes and bunny ears, Morlin is certainly out of this world and Dehara felt his new character was dramatic enough to develop "a story of its own." Morlin is a sex-fiend with a passion for women and a violent temper - he ate Satoshi's dog, Tonight, out of jealousy and because it looked tasty! - yet when he plays, holding hands with Satoshi, he appears strangely sentimental. The closeness of oji-san - alien relationship is a stark contrast to Satoshi's dismissive family. Perhaps Morlin is a motif for the escapist pursuits many beleaguered oji-san turn to in real life.

Toshiko Yamamoto, exotic wife of Satoshi-kun
Toshiko Yamamoto, exotic wife of Satoshi-kun

Potter about
Many artists strive for perfection in their work, but that isn't Dehara's aim; paper-clay is an unstable material, which swells when dried, so each piece is unique. The speediness of clay modeling is its appeal: "I like being able to shape it immediately and enjoy playing with it." Dehara wants his fans to be lured by his seemingly cute figures and colorful packaging, but also to see the realistic and grotesque components of his art. "Offensive scenes from everyday life interest me and I want to capture the humor of the scenes and give them an edge." The duality of his art presents many surprises - a friendly Satoshi, when observed closely, may be holding a chainsaw or a butcher's knife.

In his current exhibition, Dehara's work takes many forms. Paper-clay figures (from JY5000) and notebooks, mug-cups, calendars, watches and T-shirts (all from JY800) sport his colorful characters to satisfy his avid collectors, an eclectic group that includes designers, ad people and young girls. The low prices reflect Dehara's desire to make his work accessible. "I want people to be able to buy my work," says the young artist, "almost like they're buying a cute toy." The exhibition also features stills of the figures taken by five photographers, including Dehara himself. He first demonstrated his interest in the mixed media of clay figures and photography at his Taiwan exhibition. "I like my work when it is photographed and printed. The photographed figures have their own style," explains Dehara.

Every image, whether the background is Mt Fuji or his backyard in Kochi, is part of an evolving narrative. "Each figure has its own story, but if I put the character in various locations, different stories emerge." Often the inspiration for an individual image or series comes from a movie. "I like realistic and dark movies, but ones that have a humorous aspect too," he says. It's ironic that his taste in films so closely resembles his own work.

Navigating the art scene
Young artists in Japan often juggle several jobs and Dehara, who also works as a figure illustrator, is no exception. "When I do my exhibitions, the work is completely up to me, but for commissions I have to make it according to the clients needs, but I like doing both," he says. Ever since the success of his U'bd collection in Taiwan, Dehara has felt pressured by people's desire to label him as an artist. "The art scene here is a difficult place to survive. People like to put you into specific genres and the scene is dominated by fads," he says. Dehara isn't comfortable being pigeon-holed as just a figure illustrator and hopes to produce a photo book and maybe branch out into movies.

Dehara also admits he gets better responses from international art crowds than those in Japan, "where there is a trend that people only believe things that are in print." Dehara argues, "People don't sincerely desire to buy artifacts because they are nice, but because they've seen it in a magazine or on TV. Not many people go to galleries on a whim and Japanese people generally don't buy art either." So much for generalities. Unlike his loser Satoshi, Dehara is on the rise.

Exhibition information:
Morlin & Satoshi exhibition, 9/22-10/1.
Lapnet Ship Art Space & Shop, Foret Harajuku 4F, 1-8-10 Jingumae, 03-5411-3330

For people in the Kansai region, there is an Osaka exhibition coming up in the 1st floor patio of Osaka Takashimaya department store from October 18-31. You can call 06-6631-1101 for further reference.

More details on Dehara and his art are available on his homepage,

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