Monday, March 31, 2008

Yuri: Girls Love and Identity

There are a number of theories people have to explain what we paint. A professor told me she heard that "We all paint what we think are the conditions during the big bang." Another artist said "We paint to replace all the things we hate in the world." But here's what I've been contemplating: What if all the work we do is really about our first love?

It would be an eerily accurate theory in the case of the work I do.

First, a briefing about "Yuri."

Yuri (or shoujo-ai) refers to any variation of girl's relationships in manga or animé. It can be sisterly love, romantic love, or sexual love. Often many of the above.

Yuri is literature with content about females, created by females for females to enjoy (in contrast to its more popular sibling, Yaoi, which is content about males, but also created by females for females to enjoy.) The content's relationship to the author and viewer is different. Nowadays, there's a lot of Yuri created by males for males (its only a natural progression) but that's not the Yuri we're going to talk about.

That said, this is going to be a wierd Freudian post about my past relationships and how they stuck with me. And animé. Just so you know.

My first love was a girl. She was my best friend from grade 2 until grade 9, and I thought we would be together forever. A cliché "ha, why would we ever get married? We have each other!"
But she had some emotional problems, which I tended to blame on her family, that ended our relationship in a messy separation. Said separation affected me for the rest of my life. Did I mention that this girl introduced me to animé? Yeah, that.

I felt an extraordinary guilt throughout my high school years because part of me thought I had failed her. I hadn't been able to fix her emotional problems, so the logical step was to keep trying to fix the emotional shortcomings of every girl I could get close to. My repeated attachments to needy girls led to my assumption that I was a lesbian, which proved untrue after I got to college. It also led to repeated heartache and stress.

Animé is jam-packed with both the lesbian role models that I desired in high school, as well as the innocent and unreserved grade-school female relationships that resonated with my middle school days. I have an eternal allegiance to Haruka Tenoh, also known as Sailor Uranus, from the Sailor Moon series. She is a transvestite, with a female partner. She is tough, with a low voice, and does the things that boys do. Revolutionary Girl Utena took over where Uranus left off, adding multiple layers to the "girl acting out the male role," by overlapping the insecurities, changes in adolescence, and layers of sexuality to the main character. Also loss, deciet, obsession, and confusion. Utena was more than an icon, she was a biography.

The other half of it is the stuff that isn't so heavy: The school age love between little girls who are best friends. The younger ones may see this in Cardcaptor Sakura, which is genius, I think, because it also addresses loss (the friend in love looks on quietly as the other moves on to have a boyfriend.) But the roots are in Shiroi Heya no Futari and later expanded on in the genre-stronghold Maria Sama ga Miteru.

What brought Yuri in to my studio as a considerable topic was a show I recently started watching called Gakuen Alice. The main characters are, in fact, elementary-grade girls who have an unbreakable bond of friendship. Yuri isn't the main content: it's about a magic school of sorts, and conspiracy, and angst, but the handling of the Yuri content is so refreshing because it isn't your standard "come to terms with your feelings, confess, yay now we're gay," story. It is assumed already that they're bonded for life, and then the rest of the story goes on after that. The same goes for two young boys in the series, who are shown to have a "dream" regarding them living happily ever after on a farm far away from everyone. Sigh.

I'm happily taken by a male now (It was harder to tell my parents I wasn't actually a lesbian than it was coming out in the first place) but that whole experience is still a part of me. The stories that move me the most are of girls who are best friends who have to separate. There is something very special about it. About realities. Heartache. Growing up. Very much a part of my identity.

The "girl team" has always popped in and out of my work. It manifests itself in a number of ways and comes down to this: there is something uniquely beautiful about two women or girls who can love and rely on one another unconditionally. I know it.

After The identity series, I'm considering doing a body of work about pairs of young girls and animé. I've been looking into Takashi Murakami's studio, Kai Kai Kiki Co., and how those artist's personal histories are informing their animé-themed work. The trick for me is, their work is informed by animé in Japanese culture; my work will be informed by animé in American culture. Very different.

Question: I've always wondered. Does Yuri, as a medium, affect Japanese Society? Do these great stories about butch, tough, or even simply audible women inspire anyone? Has Yuri effected your identity as a woman or girl?

Visit Okazu: Here
A great source for terminology, history, and literature about Yuri and Yuri awareness in America.

Top: Mikan and Hotaru from Gakuen Alice (Magazine scan)
Bottom: Kori Michele, photo from "A Storyboard?" Installation

Animé's Multiple Personality Disorder

I love animé. It was my adolescent companion. That thing I enjoyed with my middle school friends. When I'm asked, "how did you get into animé?" I'm inclined to reply, "Well, how did you get into watching football?" It's no mystery. It's entertainment.
The truth is, it started with Pokémon. I was in middle school, so that was okay. It was first a game boy video game, and I found that there was a corresponding TV show. The storytelling is nothing earth shattering— it's an episodic cartoon, this I know. But at age, what, 13? Every episode was "to be continued," the characters developed and changed. And I'm not gonna lie: "GOTTA CATCH 'EM ALL." Enough said. What young teenager can resit the allure of collecting?
I was hooked. With animé, you don't have a single protagonist to identify with. You get a slew of personalities, many times in teams, each possessing a different skill set or disposition. The smart viewer could identify with the brainy character. The brawny kid with the muscly character, and so on. Sailor Moon bashes this archetype into our skulls, Power Rangers may be the most recognized example of this phenomenon. I claim to real knowledge into how this system got started, perhaps that's for another day.
Back to Pokémon, factor two was the internet. Pokémon was my springboard into the heart of the animerican animé culture: the world wide web. I found forums, fanfiction, image galleries. Instant community, instant common interest. On top of that, my talent was drawing. Here on this magical web, I could draw animé characters and be instantly gratified by praise from people who like the style. Whats not to love?
Animé gets a bad rep for a lot of reasons. What they are exactly, I couldn't tell you, maybe I'm too in love to see it totally objectively, but people sneer when you say you like animé. No Lie. But is animé any different than any other mass media? Movies: They can be good, bad, and terrible. Know it all fans. Fanfiction. Forums. Idiots. Same for comic books. Bollywood. You name it, theres a culture of addicts and the good, bad and ugly. Yes, some animé is bad. You know what, lots of animé is bad. Cause you know why? Lots of things are bad too.

Now, I did the "anime art" thing, and I won't knock it. I love drawing fanart, and animé style comics. But I feel like I'm just owning my childhood. Have you rewatched the Little Mermaid, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lately? Played Super Mario on the SNES or Sonic the Hedgehog on the Genesis? If so, don't be a jerk to animé fans. If not, why not?

Is this nostalgia? Is nostalgia okay to make art about? Is nostalgia "just" nostalgia? I don't know.

So I did the animé art thing. Right? Right. No shame. But art school taught me, right away, that "animé art" is bad and has no place in the fine art world (this was 2004, Little Boy would not come to New York for another year.) This was fair, I thought, as I was starting to realize the implications of "animé art": Instant gratification, and in a group with a specific interest. The animé world is a microcosm, where you can be good at "animé art" but step outside of it and no one knows what you're on about. You're not Japanese. What are you doing?

I had hoped to find a way to reconcile animé and "fine art," but having no luck early on, I went about the fine art training per normal, weaning myself off "animé style" along the way. I went three years systematically denying animé in my studio, with the occasional pang of guilt.
But sure enough, my answers are slowly coming to me. By now, there are others in the field who are using animé intelligently in the fine arts. They are making the connections. My big tip offs were Pierre Huyghe and Takashi Murakami. Instead of approaching animé as a fan, they approach it as members of the society animé affects. Tru fax.
This is my tactic. Animé is slowly coming back to my studio in a new form. Not in style, but in content. I'm stoked.

Image: Pierre Huyghe, poster from "No Ghost Just a Shell"

Question: What animé was your springboard into the internet animé culture? And how old are you? Come on, you remember your first message board. Fanfic? You know.

Identity II: The Transformation Pen

So there's this phenomenon in animé where the heroine has the ability to "transform" into different roles. Sailor Moon(1992) had the Transformation Pen (Henshou Pen). Depending on what the situation called for, she could become a university student, waitress, doctor, etc. Whatever was necessary for her to complete her "mission." It was pretty cool, she would get a uniform, new hair, and whatever equipment she needed to be convincing. Another well known transformer is Cutey Honey/Flash(1973 +). Wicked sex object (with apt title considering she "flashes" the entire audience by stripping naked to transform), Honey becomes a biker, photographer, singer, and other things that, at first consideration, leaves you wondering what the practicality of those forms could possibly be.
In my studio, "Identity" has been a big word. I have lots of wigs, costumes, and accessories that pop up in my portraits, leading to the comparison to Cindy Sherman, a relationship I won't deny. Sherman is well known for her "Film Stills": photographs in which she assumes female movie stereotypes with shocking poignancy. The word "disguise" comes up, and that is a word that I battle. "Disguise" sounds so treacherous . And I am no way in the business of deceit or lies. Honesty is a huge proponent of my studio and lifestyle, so how does one mix costumes that are apparently "disguises" with the mission of "honesty?"

When the concept of the transformation pen popped up (While Watching Re: Cutie Honey, an amazing remake by studio Gainex) things made some sense. Maybe I'm not pretending to be different characters. Maybe I'm just dressing up. Maybe I'm the same character in different outfits, not trying to fool anyone into thinking I'm actually a cowboy or a superhero. They become many aspects of ONE identity, rather than separate identities. I'm one character in many costumes, not many characters! Painting is my transformation pen, giving me access to different aspects of my media heritage. It sounds cheesy, I know, but let's roll with it. These are pictures of Kori playing dress up, not of an alter-ego.

I'd like to think I'm owning these roles. But from what angle? I'm a far cry from Cindy Sherman, but maybe we've got more in common than I thought.

Question: Help me out, what are some more animés that include a phenomenon like the "Transformation Pen?"

Image Top: Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon Transformation Pen. Bottom: Kori Michele, Drawing with Blue Wig 2
Image Credit:

Tranformation3 of 4: The Ninja

My latest body of work consists of four Identity Aspects. Here's number 3.

This is a post about Ninjas. Not real "Historical" ninjas, but the fake ones. The ones in all black that we know.

Pretty much anyone who thinks ninjas are cool knows that "real" ninjas didn't look like the pop culture ninja we know today. What you may not know is how or why the ninja became so different. Or that it wasn't the Americans who were responsible for the change, it was the Japanese. So there. Not our fault this time.

Back in the feudal days, there was some indication that stealthy mercenaries were being hired for assassinations. But the actual involvement of "ninja" is hazy. There is no indication that any important figure was actually successfully killed by a ninja, and if fact, there is little period documentation referring to the ninja at all. Ninja became popular much later and were inserted into history in post. Ninja, even as a term, was an Edo-era invention. Legendary figures with any period unaccounted for turned into "Oh, they must have been a ninja." But that still doesn't explain their current image.
The truth seems to be that an all black getup is completely conspicuous, and there are better ways to camoflage at night. So there is zero practicality is dressing in all black. The deal? Kabuki theater. As ninja tales became more popular, they because showing up in Kabuki. But the puzzle was in how to incorporate a character that was supposed to be invisible. Simple: the already available prop handlers. Stage hands, even in the west, wear all black on stage to signify that they are invisible to the audience. So what a surprise for them when one of those "invisible" stage hands breaks out and assassinates a participating character? Genius stuff! Apparently, the all-black image stuck, and Real Ultimate Power did the rest.

What does it have to do with me? This is a "cool" character again, that's the first allure. Stealthy, wild, rogue, skilled. Theres an aspect of the ninja thats been ingrained in animé, that the ninja are some kind of noble, live-by-your-own-standards-and-strength kinda people. But my claim is not to the stereotype, it's to the existence of the stereotype. The process of morphing the "real" ninja into its current form. That's the artist aspect of my identity.

Better information about Ninja reality:

Image: Kori Michele, Ninja or Kabuki Stagehand, process photo.

Tranformation 2 of 4: Onmyoji

My latest body of work consists of four Identity Aspects. Here's number 2.

The time: the Heian Period of Japan, where man's emotions are believed to manifest as real demons. Onmyoji are practicioners of Onmyodo, or "Yin-Yang Magic," who temper them. They are distinguished figures from the Heian Era, like Arthurian court wizards. They were diviners of futures, star readers, consults, and exorcisers. They summoned spirits, slayed spirits, enacted helpful seals and dreadful curses. You can't tell me that they don't sound wicked cool!
They had a system of training, distinct costumes and accessories, and were trained to serve the Emporer in Kyoto. A particular figure, named Abe no Seimei (921-1005 AD), went down in history as the most famous Onmyoji. Son of fox Spirit Kuzu no Ha, he was said to see spirits at a young age, and the rest of his career is as shrouded in mystery and lengend as his mystical birth. This is Japan's Merlin.

My knowledge of Onmyoji comes from three places: the films, animé, and wikipedia. This is highly embarrassing, but the best I can do. What I do know about them thrills me.

But this— Heien era: a time when man's emotions are believed to manifest as real demons— is the important part. Real demons that need to be really exorcised. Taking ownership of ill feelings, and conquering them hypothetically in order to exorcise them actually. I love this concept. A woman is ditched by a man, and her jealousy consumes her and turns her into a demon. This demon assaults the man in question. Onmyoji gets to the bottom of this, exorcises the demon, woman turns to normal. The demon is the mode of communication.

Here's the scary part, the demon is still used as a mode of communication. People still kill, torture, and intimidate, but the demon is now hypothetical insead of seen as real. My impression is that the Heian Japanese did believe all this literally, and I'd be cool if we still did. The Onmyoji act as emotional doctors the relive the effects of painful feelings.

Maybe that's all a bit much, but this is the spiritual aspect of my identity. Still a little fuzzy, I'm going to sum it up with this, a quote from the film Onmyoji 1 starring Mansai Nomura as Abe no Seimei: "A spell is anything that binds someone, or their heart. The simplest form of a spell is a name. You are bound by the name "Minamoto no Hiromasa," just as you are bound by love." This is about seeing things as they really are: Words and emotions, things you can own and solve with your OWN strength.

Onmyoji are common folklore in Japan, and are common in animé. Find them in titles such as Tokyo Babylon, X/1999, Shounen Onmyoji, Abenobashi Magical Shopping Arcade, and a probable appearance in Spirited Away, just to name a few.

Question: Anyone know of any good informational books on Onmyoji?

Top: Frame 7 from Onmyoji animation, Kori Michele. Bottom: Still from film Onmyoji I.
Image Credit: