Published in PersuAsian, a newsmagazine for the Gay & Pacific Islander Men of New York, Winter '06 issue

Hiroki Otsuka, On the Tipping Point

Hiroki Otsuka is a Japanese artist whose manga-style artwork is currently generating a sensation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Before this success, he struggled to survive as a gay man in Tokyo, where he began his journey as an ero-manga* artist in 1992.  The author and fellow artist, Ken Takeuchi paints a portrait of Hiroki Otsuka, on the verge of success.

*erotic manga

Hiroki Otsuka
Hiroki Otsuka on the opening night at Stay Gold Gallery.
July 28th, 2006, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Stay Gold Gallery was once again the host of Hiroki Otsuka’s latest duo exhibition, “Pleasure Little Treasure”.  As I arrive at the gallery, Hiroki’s posse are hanging out in front as usual, he garners the highest respect from his fellow Japanese hipsters in New York.  As I step into the crowded gallery, I feel slightly disoriented by the progress his work has made in the last year.

The gallery is hot and humid.  The crowd consists of the usual self-infatuated Williamsburg artists and the trust fund kid-types.  While the scent of 420 lightly colors the sultry air, a stunning DJ Ruby Red is spinning her classic deep house sprinkled with acid-jazz and ethnic percussions.  Next to her DJ station, her 10 ft. pet python, Cron, dozes off coolly in a pet carrier.  A classic gallery opening in Billburg!

Having seen his first show last year, I already know of Hiroki’s prowess in his signature ero-manga style.  His keen sense of perspective makes the audience feel like not only voyeurs but also participants in his dynamic art.  As such, Hiroki directly challenges his audience, leaving them with a sense of being haunted by his images.

You Can Buy It Here
you can buy it here, 2005
Sumi ink on paper, framed

Hiroki was born in Shiga, Japan in 1974.  He began his journey as an artist while studying at Tokyo Designer Institute.
“Yes, it all began with ero-manga.  I could only find work in that particular field when I started my career at 18.  As I delved into ero-manga, its pop & comic style fascinated me.  But after spending 10 years working on many comics, I was beginning to question whether I could build a career around it.”

“I was frequently watching French independent films at the time and discovered that human fear is deeply bound up with one’s sexuality.”

“I realized this theme was what I wanted to explore through my art.  I wanted to capture dark impulses and desires within myself as sharply as they were portrayed in literature.  So I often use sexual themes in order to visually challenge one’s subconscious fear.”

Living in Tokyo as a gay man was not easy.  As many ex-pat Japanese LGBTs can attest, he could not stand the lack of tolerance against gays in Japan.

“Gay life in Japan is conservative, even in Tokyo.  Although I was working as a freelance illustrator for ero-manga publishers, I couldn’t come out at work!  I was only out to my friends and assistants, but I couldn’t come out to the editors.  It really made me feel physically uncomfortable hiding my sexuality all the time.  And Tokyo is such a funny city, where you can only be openly gay in Shinjuku District 2, the West Village of Tokyo.  These days the media turns its spotlight on gays as entertainment, but there are still quite a few people who don’t tolerate homosexuality.  The question is how to change that and further gay rights.”

Feeling boxed in and unable to breathe, Hiroki escaped to San Francisco in 2001, where a chance encounter with a portrait artist in Napa Valley triggered a catalytic change in his life.

“When I visited Napa Valley, I was considering quitting ero-manga all together.  While at some vineyard, I happened to meet an old artist doing portraits.  He had worked as an assistant in Snoopy cartoons years ago, and now seemed very happy doing just portraits.  When he told me to come visit him again, it made me tear up seeing how happy he was doing his own art.  I knew I didn’t want to continue working on ero-manga forever, and he made me realize the freedom of living as an artist.”

“Around the same time, my friend and I visited New York for the first time.  I was shocked to meet so many artists simply by staying at a hostel!  It was the last straw, and that’s when I decided to move here to pursue art.”

Girl's Secret
the girl’s secret, 2005
Sumi ink and acrylic on board
30 x 40 inches

Much of Hiroki’s work features young girls who are just coming into their sexualities.  Some of his pieces are very shocking in its glossy style of ero-manga, showing them in explicit sexual acts, in brilliant Technicolor.  Others show distorted images of the human body, with displaced sexual organs and limbs twisting into many different forms.

Taking his talent in manga further into art, he began to experiment by enlarging single frames from his manga onto large canvases, sometimes including onomatopoetic characters in Japanese like “Boom” and “Swoosh” as a design element.

As a viewer, the result is an onslaught of singular image and impressions that the viewer has difficulty comprehending at first.  When one takes in the scene a few seconds later, one is shocked to see such a graphic and sometimes violent depiction of ourselves.

“I often draw teenage girls.  I suppose it is part of my personality on deeper level…  Sexuality is such a mystery to gay kids, you know.  Even though they have very feminine emotional side, they are still boys in appearance.  Having grown up like a pendulum between both sexes, it has always made me reflect deeply on my own emotion and sexuality.  So, in a way, I feel female characters help me express myself.”

Living in New York is a challenge.  Hiroki shared what he learned from his experience of surviving in the city.

“After moving here, I’ve discovered that I have my own voice, and ability to speak out.  Until now, I was being an isolated manga artist, encoding my mind on paper in closed world.  I did not have many chances to speak out and hear my own voice.  Even when I was in San Francisco, I could not figure out who I was, let alone what I wanted to pursue in my life.”

“But in New York, I realized I have to follow my gut instinct, otherwise the city will devour you.  Unless you face up to your responsibilities, you end up not meeting any challenges, and stop growing.  It’s such a hard and tough place to live, but I can become who I want to be here, and use my own voice – sometimes just to say no.  There’s so much stress, but it also enables me to change myself for the better. This is definitely the place where I can be ambitious!”

To The End
to the end

Translation: “I’m not searching for a place to die, but a place we can both find life together.  Even if it’s the end of the world.”

“Art is an act of self healing”, Hiroki commented.  “It’s a medium where I can express my sorrows.  I love crying while watching sad movies, and feeling cleansed afterwards.  I believe such experience helps heal ourselves.  Emotions shift all the time, like when we scheme and feel guilt subconsciously.  But when you become an adult, you realize these emotions all stem from your childhood fears.”

“So my current art focuses on my own fears.  Before beginning each painting, I always take a moment to meditate.  In order to focus all my energy into the piece, it’s important to calm myself first.”

With Williamsburg’s huge community of artists, there are many promising and cutting-edge artists showing their best work everyday.  As I leave the gallery, I feel bitter-sweet to have learned of the challenges Hiroki Otsuka faced to get here, and seeing him rising up through the tough Williamsburg arts community, forever changing, and continuing his journey of self-discovery.

“My art will continue to change as I change.  You can only keep challenging yourself at it, or choose to stagnate by being commercial.  Artists are different from those who only seek financial success.  It should not be the same.”

“All my life experience since coming here is now seeping out in my work, and in a way, it’s my shield by sharing my life experiences in order to understand my soul.”

Hiroki Otsuka’s website: www.hirokiotsuka.com
Stay Gold Gallery: www.staygoldgallery.com

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