Remember how I promised I’d bring out more editorials? Well, here’s me keeping that promise.
I’ve always wanted to do a series revolving around the actual creators behind the content we enjoy, and so for these next few editorials, I’ll talk about Japanese artists — illustrators, writers, directors — and the type of influences they bring into the works they create.
For this editorial, I’ll be talking about Wataru Uekusa, a relatively low-profile artist as far as anime is concerned, but a well-known illustrator who possesses a very unique art style that combines deceptively juvenile characters with violently surreal artistic flourishes. So sit back and relax as we explore more about the colorfully chaotic world of Wataru Uekusa.
(NB: this article has a preamble, but future articles will simply head straight into the topic.)
I remember a time when watching the opening and ending themes of a television anime show was a necessity. Along with this was the nagging realization that the animation quality of these minute-and-a-half segments far surpassed the quality and inventiveness of all of the main content of the show combined. There was the fluid movement of characters, the clichéd/exaggerated group poses of both heroes and villains, the superimposed face over a montage, the sunbursts and the speed lines; they were placed there to literally sell the series to the viewer like an elevator pitch. And in many ways, I guess you could say it worked.
But in today’s age of internet streaming of videos on-demand, it’s often tempting to simply skip the OP/ED to the “important” parts. And that’s not to say that no one really cares about OP/EDs anymore — why else would there be endless videos of top anime OP/EDs on YouTube — but the fact that having to go through these segments is optional means for the possibility of missing out on a gem or two.
And by this, I mean the brilliant animation feats of directors who grace that one-minute thirty-second of air time with something totally unique. Enter: Wataru Uekusa.
It was in the spring of 2015 when I first discovered Wataru Uekusa in his anime debut for the ending sequence of Punch Line. His style is very distinct — childish and blocky — combined with color-themed watercolor textures and fluid, “bouncy” character animations. He also uses morphing techniques that give objects “pop” and “reveal” — a characteristic that makes the animations seem like a free-flowing fluid, rather than a jerky transition between key frames. All of these characteristics made for a memorable ED that was enhanced further by the perky rock vocals of ayumi-kurika-maki (あゆみくりかまき) singing to the tune of Honey! Honey! Honey! (蜜蜜蜜)
And it wouldn’t be long before I discovered that this inconspicuous artist had been doing the rounds in the doujin (self-published) scene, producing colored illustration books and even music videos and indie films on the side. But despite his relatively slim curriculum vitae, of what works he has released actually speaks volumes, way beyond that of even the more prolific artists I’ve seen in the anime scene to date.
Just by watching a few of his animated shorts, you can easily dissect the world of Wataru Uekusa and the kind of colorful chaos that inhabits it. There’s a symbolism that speaks of a greater existential dilemma behind the characters he creates. It’s a striking detail that contrasts heavily against the deceptively colorful cuteness of his characters, especially when combined with the key elements that make his works just so harrowingly moving.
Modernist conformity and the struggle of individuality
Punch Line was a show that focused on the inevitability of destiny, the karmic forces that imprison us in a struggle of conformity, and the relentlessness of the human spirit to surpass and even break away from this cycle of inevitability. It’s an interesting parallel to the artistic language of Wataru Uekusa, which is probably why it seems more than fitting for him to be represented in the show’s ending theme. This struggle of conformity is perhaps best expressed in his 2009 short-film “Chisato Stared“, which presents to us a surreal journey of its female protagonist experiencing emotions towards a member of the same gender.
Wataru Uekusa’s depiction of conformity here is framed in the context of the educational institution, wherein the protagonist is rocketed throughout life as would a rag doll to the wind. It’s enough for him to declare the protagonist as dead, and the body as a mere vessel to carry the spirit throughout the colorless world that she inhabits. And hence there is a schism between the spiritual and corporeal nature of one self; the spirit that expresses an affectation towards a member of the same gender, and the body that complies with the worldly order. And this schism results in a denial of form from the powers that be — in this case, the educational institution taking attendance. The protagonist is there “in spirit”, but the system views this as inappropriate, and ultimately forces her to take a repeat year of remedial sessions, which is framed as rehabilitation. Attempts to escape the institution result in further rehabilitation, until she is ultimately “drained” of her own energy and succumbs to conformity. The final scene shows a liberation of character using the abstract metaphor of a helicopter; a transformation of character from the defined “twin-tails of femininity” to the rash and wild red locks of non-conformity. The result is the on-looking of the object of affection looking through rose-tinted glasses, unclear as to whether or not she is praising the protagonist’s rebirth into a helicopter or an un-bound human being.
It’s a very abstract short, that’s for sure, and it might seem cryptic at first, but Wataru Uekusa is obsessed with the idea of conformity that he utilizes several key motifs in his other short (music) films similar to the ones used here. But perhaps what strikes me the most about his style is the ambiguity of his message: that non-conformity is the result of a liberation of the self from the impositions of the greater society. It neither condones nor condemns aggression; rather, it celebrates the liberation of one’s soul from the existential crisis of purpose amidst a world of structured chaos.
Many of Wataru Uekusa’s videos feature characters running in a certain direction, and in some instances, running in circles or repeating animation cycles, only to be changed at some point (in tandem with the song). This sort of motif is a clever variation on the theme of non-conformity, as it shows his desire to push characters beyond the boundaries of their pre-determined paths. One of the more direct representations of this is seen in his music video The Tender March, which depicts the story of a female protagonist and how her movement through the various stages of life is likened to living in parallel worlds:
In this video, the song talks about a crisis that is befalling the earth, and the bizarre human tendency to maintain the status quo. The protagonist’s younger self views the crisis with awe and wonder, but is beaten down by reality like a rag doll every time she revisits the thought. It’s this child-like innocence that makes for her linear walk towards an unknown goal, but one where the ideal is still a large part of her thoughts. We are then shifted to the protagonist’s adolescence where the thought is now challenged by a barrage of other thoughts, as if vying for attention. The crisis is set aside in favor of other pursuits, and the protagonist arms herself with a box cutter, as if symbolizing a futile attempt at defending her own ego. She now makes a linear walk amidst a chaotic barrage of elements, mirroring the disorder of her own lived existence. Ideologies, themes, concepts, ideas — everything about the world becomes needlessly complex that the ideal becomes ever so smaller in her mind. And finally, the last segment in adulthood where she is now seen killing off her own ego, numbed by the experience of time and simply resorting to riding away on a scooter from the torments of her mind.
These three depictions of linearity or parallel worlds — idealism, individualism, and escapism — all create a cyclic nature of repetition, which ultimately does not answer the original proposal of the song — there is a crisis that is going to befall the earth. And so the song breaks its linearity — and so does the character — as she is shuttled forward by all of her experiences towards defeating the very “crisis” that was literally exploding in the background throughout the entire duration of the song.
At least for Wataru Uekusa, the existential crisis is one of recognizing one’s calling, and the means by which one can embrace their lived existence towards the actualization of their purpose. And this is a process, not an epiphany. All of his characters have gone through the act of running blindly towards a vague goal, but in the end, obtain some sort of ambiguous conclusion. And its this ambiguity that pervades most of his works and establishes the lack of a definitive conclusion towards the existential dilemma of human existence.
Metamorphosis and the amorphous nature of the soul
And last of Wataru Uekusa’s motifs is that of metamorphosis. He utilizes many scenes of bodily change, often having his characters take on the form of a bizarre animal in a sequence that is nothing short of surreal. We see this in the video above where the persona takes on the form of something along the lines of a panda and a monkey, combined. This is also seen in The Tender March where the protagonist’s epiphany and transformation is likened to a tadpole transforming into a hero; and at the end of the song, the “crisis” in the background transforming into a butterfly.
Metamorphosis is at the core of the transformative nature of his illustrations, which take on an almost amorphous, malleable form. It speaks towards the ability of humanity to shape their perception of the world — for better or for worse. But what makes his take on metamorphosis compelling is its use in the form of “searching”. The existential search for purpose is likened to the search of form, and in the context of his videos, is a continuous process of constant flux. There is no fixed perception of who we are, at least according to Wataru Uekusa, but if that were the case, how do we maintain our own concept of the “self” in a world full of chaos? How can we break away from the conformist nature of the world if we can’t even define, with certainty, who we are as a being capable of perceiving our own existence as unique?
And I believe this is what makes Wataru Uekusa’s works so charming in that it invites this ambiguity to the table. This ambiguity effectively creates an underlying tone of instability — a feeling of imbalance and discomfort — when watching his otherwise cute and colorful illustrations bounce around on screen. This dichotomy stretches our perceptions beyond conformity — that cute illustrations can only portray cute themes — and invites us to ponder the form in which we, ourselves, express ourselves as unique individuals.
Indeed, Wataru Uekusa isn’t as prolific as some of the great artists out there, but his style and mindset are on full display in everything that he does. There’s beauty in the human struggle to search for meaning in a world that reduces human existence to a mere mechanism — a corporeal shell of existence that lives and dies — and the means by which we discover, inelegant as it may seem, the unique way in which we can stumble through life and discover enlightenment where we least expect to. His is a beautiful, bizarre journey towards self-discovery that involves transformation, bizarre creatures, and chaotic visuals — a metaphor not so alien to the reality that even we are faced with.