Hideyasu Moto published his first comics in Garo, underground manga’s cult favorite magazine, in 1995. The magazine had peaked in the ’70s, but the meeting of Moto and Garo would yield some of the defining works of the artist’s career.
Garo is known mainly for its more gritty stars like Yoshiharu Tsuge, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Takashi Nemoto. Comparatively, at least upon first glance, Moto’s manga are sweeter, populated by babyish and beady-eyed organisms (his dog Mocozo makes frequent appearances) and personified objects. Fans have noted, however, that under the sweet first layer is much anxiety and cynicism. In his illustrations, an uncanny runs through cute faces and idyllic landscapes – the same feeling exuded by a cabinet of dolls, or the blank stare of a stuffed animal. You feel that the plushy exterior is but a facade sewn over something more mischievous or even sinister.
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Moto, who debuted as an illustrator in 1990, told me that his Garo debut five years later marked the development of his own style. “I guess I was sort of contrary, and I didn’t want my works to be seen as fashionable, so I deliberately kept my style unfashionable,” he said, a bit self-deprecatingly. Though I wouldn’t call his illustrations unfashionable, they certainly display an admiration for the past, with his calls to Modernist painting, palettes reminiscent of three-strip Technicolor, portraits of George Harrison and RZA, and pop-culture references like city pop and Ultraman. Even his manner of handling acrylic paint – opaque, smooth, flat sometimes, or emphatically gradiated – is lovably “unfashionable,” like a Showa Era poster.
Unsurprisingly, Recosuke-kun, one of Moto’s most famous manga, was about analog records. Recosuke-kun began as a serialization in Music Magazine and Record Collectors. Over 20 years later, the titular protagonist continues to appear in his works, from standalone paintings to T-shirts. He speculated that he keeps getting requests to draw Recosuke-kun from the “many analog record lovers out there.” Luckily, history and our tastes are cyclical and what was newly outdated in the ’90s is vogue again. It’s as if Moto predicted the popular revival of old-fashioned sounds and warm, old-fashioned colors and characters. Were you inspired by ’90s music and fashion at this time? I asked. He answered that he always preferred music from before he was born, like The Beatles. Especially George Harrison.
Although paying no mind to the ebbs and flows of fashion is now a trend in itself, the artist seems to have maintained a natural indifference throughout his career. Recosuke-kun is an outlet for gushing about music, and more recent compositions flout standards of structure and order. In the way of Magritte, an odd, radical symmetry and stiffness often dominates his mishmash character paintings. Overlarge, warped heads, screwball hybrids and surrealist scenes, when rendered in the nostalgia and politeness of his painting method, come to life, no longer mere deliberations on magazine paper. This lifelikeness is slightly creepy, like the speculations of how Spongebob would look in real life.
My initial impression was that comics are necessarily rigid, more regulated in both form and origin than standalone paintings and illustrations. I thought, those artists must draw in boxes, and put those boxes in bigger boxes, and be subject to the eye of editors and publishers. However, Moto likened underground comics to fine art, “where the artist is allowed to draw freely.” He said, “Since it’s the exact opposite of commercial art, the motivation to create is different, and you can work on your piece with a fresh mind.”
The outlandish canvases and illustrations of his later career, then, are not a reaction to any restraint in his comic days. In fact, the phase of his career when he was drawing for avant-garde magazines like Garo and, subsequently, Monthly Ikki was highly independent. Comb through the old copies of Ikki on Amazon and Ebay and you’ll see the equally outlandish covers of Moto’s serial manga Wild Mountain. You’ll see wooded landscapes with big-eyed deer and anthropomorphic mushrooms, and read titles like “Nakano-ku Fantasy” and “Alien Invasion of Nakano-ku’s Wild Mountain Town!?” Just as Recosuke-kun appears time and again in new projects, the meadows and cityscapes of Wild Mountain laid the formal foundations of the glossy Technicolor world Moto paints today – a world never subject to the influences of contemporary fashion or artistic canon.
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Music is as important to his work as these fantastical visions. Realizing his Recosuke-era infatuations, Moto’s oeuvre has come to include many album covers and even his own music label. In 2014, on his 45th birthday, he founded Rhion Records, which releases 7-inch singles with original Moto-made covers. These vinyls are both less expensive to make and easier to draw covers for. “That’s how I became a 7-inch record specialist,” he explained.
This enterprise has led to collaborations with the likes of never young beach, cero and Kaneko Ayano, as well as doo-wop pop singer ℃-want you!. Record covers cater to the artist and song, of course, but Moto does not distill his style to conform to commercial ideals of minimalism and sleekness, often setting the likenesses of the artists against his characteristic pastoral landscapes, or venturing into superflat plays of stark line and color. He is not lucky that these retro fairytale visions are in favor today; he would not care if they actually were unfashionable. Moto is not just indifferent to fashion, but above it. He knows what he likes. Sometimes, his process is as simple as one song. “Whenever I paint, I make sure to put music on,” he shared. “When I listen to a gentle song, it makes for a gentle picture, and when I listen to a dark song, it makes for a dark picture. I think of music as a painting medium.”
A Mocozo exhibition featuring the dog-portraits of Moto and others will take place at 888books from September 17 to September 27.