“And so even if no verse ever emerges from the mute poet, even if the painter never sets brush to canvas, he is happier than the wealthiest of men, happier than any strong-armed emperor or pampered child of this vulgar world of ours — for he can view human life with an artist’s eye; he is released from the world’s illusory sufferings; he is able to come and go in a realm of transcendent purity, to construct a unique universe of art, and thereby to destroy the binding fetters of self-interest and desire.”
–Kusamakura, Natsume Sōseki
October 11, 2022. The day that Japan fully opened its borders to foreign tourists. An announcement that some were surprised by, given Japan’s strictness surrounding COVID travel and its 220-year history of isolation from the outside world from 1633 to 1853. Known as “sakoku,” this national policy restricted trade and relations between Japan and most other countries. Foreigners weren’t allowed to enter Japan, and the average Japanese couldn’t leave the country.
Born in 1867 at the start of the Meiji era, Natsume Sōseki, the father of modern Japanese literature, saw his country open up to the West and begin a breakneck process of modernization. Although he was infatuated with Japanese and Chinese classics, he chose to study English at university because he thought it might be useful for a writing career in this new world. In 1900, the Japanese government sent Sōseki to study in London with the distinction of being “Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar.” He spent most of those two years alone at home, devouring English books.
Sōseki’s upbringing at the start of Japan’s modern era and his time in England set the stage for his novel Kusamakura in 1906. Centered around a nameless artist narrator who takes a hiking trip to a mountain hot spring inn, the main character aims to achieve a “nonemotional” and “unhuman” approach to capture the beauty around him, as it is.
Like Sōseki, the nameless artist is infatuated with modern Western culture, but also reveres Japanese traditional art forms such as haiku and ukiyo-e, and finds himself in a liminal state between these two worlds. His novel captures a moment when Japan was at a turning point, with one eye on the past and one on the future, where seemingly anything was possible.
November 5, 2022. The Reiwa era. Anticipation in the air. A gorgeous autumn day with Japan peeking through the clouds below. Rows of Japanese travelers returning to their families for the first time since COVID sealed off the archipelago from the outside world. Gaijin on business, gaijin with fanny packs and urban hiking gear, gaijin of the neckbearded otaku variety. And one Thundercat, dressed in a fuzzy animal hoodie and a Murakami backpack patterned in joyous rainbow flowers. All of us masked up, ready for a customs gauntlet before finally emerging from the metro to the intoxicating smells of rich, umami curry.
I’m traveling with one of my oldest friends, who has been studying Japanese for the last few years and generously agreed to help as a translator. We’re here to meet a new generation of Japanese artists navigating another turning point for their country. With one eye in the physical world, and one eye in the digital.
Techno Temple in Electric Town
Standing inside the grounds of Kanda Myojin, a shrine with 1300 years of history now perched on a small hill in Tokyo, all is calm. The tranquil vibe feels worlds away from the lights and noise of nearby Akihabara — Japan’s mecca for otaku and technophiles. In fact, the shrine sells an “IT Information Security” talisman to guard your devices from viruses, data theft, and other potential issues. I make sure to purchase one to bless my gear and protect me from future rug pulls.
Anocam (a photographer and artist from London who has been living in Tokyo for the past 3 years) also graciously meets up with us for the day to take photos and help translate. His work captures the frenetic, dreamlike quality of Tokyo with a deep respect and love for the city.
We’re here to chat with EXCALIBUR — a 13-person collective led by two artists who prefer to remain anon (I’ll call them “Y” and “M”). Wearing handmade masks covered in computer keys, the founders welcome us into the shrine’s adjoining tearoom, where we sip on iced coffees and matcha whisked with bamboo.
Although the collective comprises a roster of visual artists and musicians, the main concepts come from Y’s brain, and then M works on the animations and finer details.
Y is deeply interested in the Shinto religion — they were born and raised near a shrine that appears in Japanese mythology, where the sun deity and energy deity descended to Earth and first lived together. The deities then traveled across Japan and arrived at their present location of Ise Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shinto.
“There are 8 million deities and over 80,000 shrines in Japan,” Y says. “In other words, in Japanese Shintoism, the divine spirits are replicable. And even if the spirit is split, the original divine spirit is not affected, and the split spirit performs the same function as the original divine spirit. Therefore, each deity is original, and they all have their home. In the same way, all reproduced digital data are original, meaning they must have a home somewhere. We hoped to provide a home for the souls of digital data.”
This is what drew the collective to NFTs. EXCALIBUR makes conceptual pixel art about the melding of the physical and the virtual, so it was a natural progression to start creating crypto art.
“PRAYABLE (Nagoshi no Harae)” (2021)
“Before NFTs, with digital art you would print it out, put it somewhere, you would project it somewhere, or you would need a digital screen. But it could be copied. There’s not an origin, per se,” Y says. “And with NFTs, you can see the art has a soul, where you can follow where this thing goes. There is an origin to this thing.”
EXCALIBUR are disciples of Yutaka Matsuzawa (a pioneer of conceptual art in Japan), who was concerned with the vanishing of the object and visual image in physical art, creating an anti-materialist art that focused on absences. The collective calls their overlap between the physical and the virtual “Street, Ethernet, Field.” “Street” refers to the street art that they’ve done in the physical world. “Ethernet” is their portmanteau of “Ethereum” and “Internet” — the digital world that they’re exploring (also a cable). And then “Field” refers to their gaming focus, which can inhabit physical and/or virtual worlds. Games can be anywhere.
For a recent exhibition, EXCALIBUR pay homage to Art Nouveau and Zen philosophy with “Fūkō Hibi Arata,” which literally means “the light and wind are new every day.” Nature always gives us something new to ponder, and EXCALIBUR evokes the ever-shifting natural world with their “pixelated natural landscapes.”
“As technology improves, we’re getting closer to where the physical world and the digital world is just one flowing thing,” Y says. “Whereas now, you have a reality and a digital world, or even comparing it to Ready Player One, the physical and digital are clearly separate. Whereas something like The Matrix, you cannot tell the difference. There isn’t a difference…We’ve never thought about it being good or bad; it just is.”
COVID and gaming inspired their series “NEW GAME+”. “[‘NEW GAME+’] is a system that allows you to start over from the beginning of a video game that you have already completed, while retaining your status,” the booklet for the series states. “We were severely damaged by the Corona disaster, but our world is neither GAME OVER nor RESET. Can’t we consider that we have cleared the social structure once and for all? We have seen the ending of this reality. Then, you can start again with your own status inherited.”
“NEW normal GAME” (2021)
With a vivid color palette that references retro gaming, EXCALIBUR’s work is firmly in the pixel art style, but it’s not just an aesthetic choice. They find that their Shinto and Zen concepts make more sense as pixel art than, say, 3D art.
Unlike the general NFT community in Japan — which Y finds to be small and atomized, due to the Galápagos effect and the country being an archipelago — the pixel art community is tight-knit. They enjoy playing games together and connecting from all over the world. They share a similar art style, interests, and complaints about the creative tools they use — as well as an aspiration to be “pixel perfect” with their artwork. Essentially, “pixel perfect” means creating something without design imperfections, all the way down to the pixel level. To be “not pixel perfect” is unforgivable.
After our tearoom chat, we take a stroll with EXCALIBUR to the main drag of Akihabara, which is lined with multi-story arcades packed with UFO catchers, horse race betting simulators, and taiko drum games. On the classic games floor of a GiGO (formerly SEGA) arcade, we play House of the Dead 2 and Arkanoid before watching Y expertly maneuver a retro shooter called Xevious that serves as a big inspiration for EXCALIBUR’s artwork. The game’s lead artist, Hiroshi Ono (a.k.a. “Mr. Dotman”) was a legend in the pixel art world.
While EXCALIBUR have embraced NFTs and use computers to create their pixel art, they ultimately think of themselves as conceptual artists. The newness of the technology they use, or its relation to “classic” art, isn’t as important as the concepts the technology explores.
“Another 100 years pass by, and digital art now becomes classic art,” Y says. “It’s all relative.”
Earlier in the day, we rendezvous with Anocam at a hookah bar in the heart of Akihabara called Chill Inn, on the seventh floor of a building nestled among tech merchants and maid cafes. Chill Inn is adorned with artworks by MITSUME, an artist whose talent for illustration is unmistakable. Before the bar opens, we have the pleasure of chatting over shisha and mint tea. Throughout the interview, he sips on a hookah and the sound of water bubbles up between his thoughts.
MITSUME is wearing a button-up shirt patterned with a monochrome manga cityscape by the late Kansai Yamamoto — a larger-than-life designer who had a storied career designing fashion for icons like David Bowie at the height of his stardom. MITSUME had the honor of collaborating with Yamamoto as well.
Raised in a city near Nagoya called Gifu, MITSUME began drawing when he was 6 years old. From a young age, he had a dream to be an illustrator. As an adult, he attended a CG design school for 2 years, where they taught skills such as video game character design. After graduating, he applied to work at game studios like Capcom and Konami as a graphic designer, but he couldn’t find a role in the industry. So he pivoted into client illustration work and continued honing his creative vision.
MITSUME’s artwork at Chill Inn, Akihabara
Even so, MITSUME loves games. His all-time favorites are Street Fighter II and Resident Evil 2, but the games that influence his visceral and hyper-detailed artwork come from the cyberpunk aesthetic, with warped cyborg characters that tend towards the feminine but generally appear desexualized. All told, he’s optimistic about society’s shift to the metaverse and thrilled at the prospect of more Japanese IP wading into the NFT space, like Pokémon. We both agree that when Pokémon NFT drops, it will be legendary.
“I’m really inspired by the metaverse and NFT technology, especially the explosion of value of digital art with the NFT market,” he says with a smile. “There are so many possibilities… I would be happy if the fusion between humans and machines becomes possible. I myself would like to become a cyborg. If a body part can be modified into a machine, I could fly, see what the eye cannot see, and go to deep parts of the ocean or to space.”
The lines between reality and the digital world are starting to blur, and that’s a theme that MITSUME clearly enjoys. For instance, he’s inspired by digital fashion and how it can mirror the physical garment. Likewise, when he was 18 years old, he started live painting in front of an audience, and IRL performances have continued to be a major part of his creative practice.
“With live painting, the finished painting is far from idealistic — it is distorted and has dirty parts,” he says. “I think of it only as a live performance, so I feel uncomfortable when just the finished painting is seen. However, I feel pleasure in the act of humans painting a picture. The excitement I felt as a child just by coloring the color red, or the pleasure of drawing not knowing what I was drawing. There is no need to draw a beautiful painting, I just want to color or just freely draw something. Sometimes the painting turns out far better than I could have imagined.”
Meanwhile at home, MITSUME starts with line drawings on paper and scans them into Adobe Illustrator, where he re-draws everything using only a computer mouse. His process is partly inspired by Japanese line drawings called Chōjū Giga (literally “Animal Caricatures”) from the 12th and 13th century, which are often referenced as early works that led to the manga artform. These four scrolls feature animal caricatures that satirize Japanese priests from that period, and today they are a national treasure. When I ask about his modern inspirations, he cites Katsuhiro Otomo, the revered manga artist and creator of Akira.
In January 2022, a collector reached out to MITSUME and suggested that he mint NFTs of his work, and by February he had released his genesis on SuperRare’s digital art marketplace. Though he loves the web3 community, he finds that people in Japan generally don’t understand the use cases for NFTs, how to interact with them, and why they would want to use them in the first place.
“[Past ← wisdom → Future]/M01” (2022)
“Japanese people don’t really buy art. There are very few collectors,” he explains. “In Japan, there isn’t really a culture of decorating your room with art on the walls.” This is partly because most landlords in Japan don’t allow renters to drill screws or hammer nails into a wall to hang up artwork.
According to an annual survey by the Japanese government, Japan’s share of the global art market was just 3.7% in 2021 — a small figure given the country’s population of over 125 million. However, more Japanese collectors have slowly entered the traditional art market over the past 5 years, with Christie’s seeing a 14% increase from 2020 to 2021. Perhaps as NFT technology becomes more integrated into everyday life, people in Japan will discover the advantages of collecting digital art. No need to hang up a canvas in a cramped Tokyo apartment; you can just collect it on the blockchain.
Like EXCALIBUR, MITSUME also brings up the Galápagos effect. By being so disparate and secluded from the rest of the world, it can be difficult for Japanese artists to break into the international community. The language barrier is also a major factor. Not much gets in; not much gets out.
On the other hand, because Japan is relatively secular compared to countries like the United States, MITSUME finds that Japanese people can more easily relate to a wide variety of artists’ creative expression without having to subscribe to a particular religion. So he remains optimistic about Japan’s creative future.
“Nonexistent cross-section” (2022)
No matter if MITSUME is exploring a new country or a digital world, it’s clear that travel and adventure fuel his creativity. He often hikes into the mountains for inspiration and his manager can’t reach him for days. And even though this year will take him on a busy tour schedule around the world, he still plans to trek to the top of Mt. Fuji this summer — a rite of passage for the Japanese people. Sometimes, you need to unplug from the metaverse, even if you’re helping to create it.