"Drop Dead Cute: The New Generation of Women Artists in Japan" is quite simply a book that is drop-dead gorgeous. Ten artists--most in their early thirties--are profiled, and I would, figuratively speaking of course, kill to have the work of any hanging on my walls. As Ivan Vartanian, who has put this book together, notes in his introduction, most of the art reflects the so-called "super-flat" style that is all the rage among Japan's cutting-edge artists. This two-dimensional graphic style is associated with Japanese manga (adult comics) and anime (animated films), and in a number of cases the renderings of female faces here owe a great deal to the childlike, wide-eyed models of manga and anime. Another recurring theme in this art is the emphasis on animals. One artist, for example, repeatedly uses elephants as her theme with a style that resembles a cross between Hello Kitty and Babar. In large part it is this prevalence of lovable animals, child-like faces, and various dream-like themes that has led Vartanian and others to label the work of these artists "kawaii," the Japanese word for cute.
Personally I would be more inclined to apply the word "kowai," which means "frightening" in Japanese, to the work presented in "Drop Dead Cute." There is an overwhelming sense of loneliness and alienation in this graphic work, a general absence of men and of family life, all sorts of female grotesqueries, and juxtapositions of the horrific and the idyllic. Take, for example, the graphically-stunning work of Chiho Aoshima. In one print she has what is perhaps the most beautiful rendering of a Japanese plum tree that I have ever seen, and this tree in blossom is mixed with images of the mythical paradise of Mount Horai. Stranded in the high branches of the tree, meanwhile, is a naked woman bound in ropes. Another artist, Tabaimo, who works in a take-off of the ukiyoe style, has a subway car scene with a baby abandoned like a package on an upper luggage rack, a stack of dismembered forearms, and a man wrapped like a piece of sushi.
What this all means is only touched on lightly by Vartanian. He has provided a mere one page of text by way of understanding each artist, and his introduction is also just a teaser in hinting at the darker side of this art. For a fuller understanding of how an emphasis on childish themes is coexisting with a sense of alienation in Japan today, the reader of "Drop Dead Cute" would do well to acquire the more scholarly and probing "Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture."