A self-taught Japanese-born and San Francisco-based artist, Junko Mizuno has developed a unique visual iconography that combines American psychedelia, contemporary kawaii and gothic horror. This vibrant imaginary universe she created is populated by powerful and erotic female protagonists, but also strange foods, adorable aliens, powerful gods, unusual paper dolls, and much more.
Characterized by flowing lines combined with geometric shapes and symbolic content, Junko’s art is rooted in Japanese pop culture from the ’70s and ’80s. It also draws from a wide range of influences such as fetish art, folk art, religious art, psychedelic art, pin-up art, advertising art, vintage toys, fashion, comics, food, nature, movies, TV shows and video games. A versatile and prolific artist, Junko creates comics, paintings, illustrations and product designs ranging from toy figures to T-shirts. Junko’s most-recent exhibition, Soma at Corey Helford Gallery, celebrates life, death and body, encapsulating the growth, maturity and finality of the human existence.
PRØHBTD chatted with Junko on her latest body of work, different influences on her practice, her strong female protagonists, the Japanese comic scene and her toy collection.
Your latest body of work celebrates life, death and body. Could you tell us something about the ideas behind this series? What compelled you to deal with these subjects?
As I’m turning 46 this year, I feel the changes in my body every day, and I’ve seen changes in the lives of the people around me in the last five years or so. Serious illnesses, losing parents, having babies, raising kids, and some of my friends passed away. I wanted to take all of the changes that had happened as a natural flow in life and make a series of works celebrating it.
You draw from a range of sources, from fetish art, folk art, religious art, psychedelic art, pin-up art and advertising art to vintage toys, fashion, comics, food, nature, movies, TV shows and video games. How do you articulate all these different influences into your own visual language?
It’s very difficult to explain the process in words because I’ve been doing it naturally since I was very little. I started drawing when I was two or three, and for me, making art has been the same thing as eating or sleeping. So, when I see/hear/taste/feel something, my brain automatically figures out if and how I can take it into my art. It’s really hard to describe what happens in my head. Sometimes I look at my finished artwork or my old comics and don’t even remember how I came up with the ideas.
Your work is equal parts innocent and cute and erotic and macabre. What do you think this blend of opposing forces evokes in the viewer?
Actually, I don’t think those elements are necessarily opposing.
As a kid, I learned to draw by copying the big-eyed cute characters that were in most of the Japanese comics and animations that I enjoyed. I was also into horror comics, and as I grew older, I got into fetish art. But as you mentioned in your previous questions, I’ve loved and got influenced by so many other things such as video games, silly Japanese comedy shows, different kinds of music and films, etc.
So I actually don’t understand why some people think my art is just a mix of cuteness and grotesqueness. My art is a natural reflection of myself, what I’ve experienced and the world I live in, so it has many different elements in it, and what it evokes varies depending on the viewer.
The universe you created is inhabited by strong female protagonists. How do you conceive these characters and what do they represent?
I grew up in Japan where girls are always told to be cute and submissive which made me feel repressed. My mother was not happy about me because I was too obsessed with art and too determined that I was going to become a professional artist. It was not what a “cute” girl should be doing, and I could tell she wanted me to become a normal housewife with kids.
It’s obvious that the pressure made me fantasize about having super power and creating female characters that are powerful, sometimes crazy and outrageous.
You are one of Japan’s most popular modern comic artists. How challenging was it to be a female comic creator in this scene?
I personally think the comic industry in Japan is not as sexist as other fields in Japan because it’s relatively new. There were times when I felt like I was looked down on by male clients I worked with, but it was usually because I was young and inexperienced. I’ve experienced a lot of harassment from men outside of work but not as an artist.
But I don’t know about other women in the field… I’ve heard some stories about sexual harassment of women who work in the industry. Maybe they didn’t treat me like other women because I was a weird artist.
How does your creative process for making comics differ from working on paintings and illustrations?
For both comics and paintings/illustration, I start with daydreaming, doodling and coming up with ideas. For paintings and illustration, I can just proceed to sketching, ink or paint and finish the piece. For comics, I write down the stories and make storyboards before I start sketching.
My work always has stories behind it, but for paintings and illustration, I don’t think too much about the details and freely draw anything I want to. Comics are more complicated. I need to create a more detailed world, dive into it and simulate what it’s like to live in it as the characters.
I love both processes but making comics definitely takes much more time.
Besides designing toys, you are also an avid toy collector. Could you tell us something about your toy collection? What kind of toys fascinate you the most?
I was a crazy toy collector until I was in my mid-30s. I’ve got so much inspiration from toys but decided to slow down and focus more on creating than collecting. I’ve sold most of my collection before I moved to the U.S. in 2009 but still keep my favorite ones.
I was not much into fashion dolls or baby dolls as a kid. I’ve always been into playset, dollhouse types of toys such as Koeda Chan, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Polly Pocket… the toy series that have their own world and characters. I like looking at them and creating crazy stories in my head.
I still check out toy stores often and get inspiration from new toy designs.
You have been living in San Francisco for the past 10 years. How did this experience influence your art and storytelling?
I was a weird woman in Japan, and I believed I didn’t care about what other people thought about me.
But after I came here, I realized I was still bound by a lot of Japanese rules because I felt freer. I’ve met so many women of different colors, sizes, races and ways of thinking, which greatly changed my art style.
I also feel that I’m more independent and have more options. In Japan, it’s hard for an artist to be successful without belonging to certain groups or organizations, but I found there are so many other ways for me to keep creating art and make a living here.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m working on the pieces for my next exhibition about my new coloring book that will be at Gallery Nucleus in Los Angeles in May. I have at least four new art toys coming out, and my very first art book Hell Babies—the new title is Hell Ladies—and my first graphic novel Pure Trance will be republished this year. And so many other exciting projects!