Painter Saya Aokabi: The thought behind the unique creations from her first exhibition

In March of this year, painter Saya Aokabi held her first-ever solo exhibition, Mille Crepes, at three different venues simultaneously: HENKYO (Tokyo), SUPER BLANK (Okayama), and Factory Gallery (Kagoshima). Her acrylic paintings, which incorporate anime from her childhood as motifs, have attracted attention both in Japan and abroad. For Aokabi, this solo exhibition was also an opportunity for a new beginning as an artist—she joined the HENKYO gallery after [the artist] TIDE. Aokabi, who says she has been drawing since before she was even a year old, tells us about her creative process and the intention behind her work. 

——First, could you tell us how you got into creating? 

Saya Aokabi: I started drawing at a young age by imitating my older sister. But according to my parents, I’ve been drawing since before I was even a year old. So, there wasn’t really a specific start—I’ve been drawing every day for as long as I can remember. That never stopped, and to this day, I still draw every day.

——Every day—that’s impressive. Did your parents have art-related jobs?

Saya: No. But my mom was good at drawing, so when I was little, I’d ask her to draw pictures of girls for me, and I’d copy those. My mom used to like shoujo manga, so she would draw those kinds of girl characters, and I remember liking those drawings.

Also, from a young age, my mom would take me to Tsutaya. I used to rent old (1970-90s) anime from there and watch them. That was a formative experience for me.

Then, once I was in elementary and middle school, I was always copying the characters from anime and manga, or drawing pictures that incorporated those elements. Once I got a smartphone in high school, I started looking at ‘90s anime and manga on the internet, and that aligned with my formative experiences. After that, I started incorporating elements from ‘90s anime in my drawings, which led to my current style. 

——You didn’t ever think of becoming a manga artist?

Saya: When I was in elementary school, the illustration job that was easiest to imagine was a manga artist, so I did think about it. But as a manga artist, you have to draw backgrounds in addition to characters, and you have to think of the story, too. I started thinking that it’d be impossible for me, since I was only interested in drawing characters. The fact that I loved drawing didn’t change, so I went to an art high school, and that led to an art school [for university]. When I went to art school, a professor told me to become an artist, and at first, I thought, “I don’t want to become an artist.” But before I knew it, I’d basically become one. (laughs)

——Why didn’t you want to be an artist?

Saya: At the time, I think I didn’t feel like it was something good, partly because I didn’t really even know what an artist did.

——But as you kept working, you became an artist?

Saya: Right. In my case, I was only interested in characters, so I couldn’t become a manga artist or illustrator. I just drew what I wanted to draw and kept at it, and that’s how I ended up where I am now.

Saya Aokabi creates paintings by keeping a distance from her intentions

——Are there any anime or manga that had a big influence on you?

Saya: I love Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s drawings. It might not be reflected in my paintings, but Yoshiyuki Sadamoto had a huge influence on how my current work came about.

——I feel like I get a Sailor Moon vibe too?

Saya: The Sailor Moon illustrations themselves didn’t have a big influence on me. But I have clear memories of watching anime as a kid, and I think Sailor Moon had an impact on the fact that I liked ‘90’s anime when I was in high school. I didn’t watch the anime series Macross 7 or Martian Successor Nadesico, but I did like the illustrations, so I think that influenced me.

——Is there a reason why you only paint girls?

Saya: As far as I’m concerned, I’m not trying to paint girls; I’m trying to paint something pure that naturally comes out from within. When I paint male characters, I become conscious of it, like, “I’m going to paint a boy.” But when I paint without being conscious of anything, the character naturally comes out looking like a girl. The character looks like a girl at first glance, but really, they don’t have a gender. It’s not about being genderless, though—I’m just painting a character as a motif. 

——What’s the intention behind the pieces that are blurred or look as if they’re unfinished at first glance?

Saya: Up until high school, I was just doing line drawings with a pencil. At the time, I was able to express myself as I wanted 100% on paper, just by using my own mind. Once I started painting with acrylics, my paintings were being affected by the paint, the brush, or the nature of the support, and they gradually stopped coming out how I wanted them to. So, I felt like my paintings were being changed by something. Unintentional elements were changing my work. That was fun.

This inverted piece has two canvases that make up one set. It’s a work that looks like intaglio or letterpress printing. I put paint on the first canvas, and before the paint dries, I press it onto the second blank canvas. I repeat that process over and over to complete the work. As I do that, the painting starts to change, becoming blurred, smudged, or worn down. As I repeatedly press the paintings against each other, they change, getting further out of my control. As the work moves further away from my intentions through these effects, I feel like it becomes independent of what I was imagining, turning into a painting in the purest sense. 

——I see. So you accept the fact that unintentional elements change the painting.

Saya: I think it’d be boring to be able to create something with my mind alone.

Also, the largest painting in this exhibition, No. 200, shows the process of creating a painting, from the rough sketch to the line drawing to a colored-in state, all on one canvas. I purposely show this process. 

When I see anime illustrations, I look up how the illustration was made and think about the process it went through. So when viewers look at my paintings, I want to share with them the process through which the painting was created. That’s why I deliberately visualize that process in my work.

Recently, I’ve been uploading illustrations I drew on my computer to Instagram, and some of my posts show the process, too.

——When I hear about the intentions behind your work, it deepens my understanding of it. By the way, is there anything you want to convey through your work?

Saya: It’s not about what I want to convey. I hope that people will look at the paintings, give them their full attention, and think as individuals.

——Vivid colors are a unique characteristic of your work. Is there anything you’re conscious of?

Saya: In my university days, I was influenced by the anime I watched on CRT TVs, so I used to paint in a bit of a dark style. But one day, I saw an actual animation cel, and the color was really striking. After seeing that, I started thinking that the darkness I’d been particular about wasn’t important, and recently, I’ve started choosing colors without thinking about it too hard.  

“Ultimately, I only paint for myself.”

——This was your first solo exhibition, and on top of that, it was held at three different locations. Was that difficult?

Saya: It was a lot of work, but that was outweighed by the fun. Originally, we had talked about doing it last December, but due to the coronavirus, we decided to have it in March of this year.

——Were the exhibitions at all three locations based on the same concept? 

Saya: All three locations were the same in terms of showing the process and keeping a distance from my own intentions.

——During the coronavirus, did you stay in and paint the whole time?

Saya: Yeah. Even before the coronavirus, I was always painting, but I couldn’t even go to galleries and art museums, so I was really holed up and painting the whole time.

——Are there ever times when you feel like you can’t paint?

Saya: Painting comes so naturally to me that as long as I’m free to paint whatever, I can paint without thinking. So, there aren’t really times when I can’t paint.

——Would you like to do animations as well in the future?

Saya: I don’t plan to do any videos at the moment. I’d like to try painting on a three-dimensional object though. I’m not interested in making three-dimensional objects, but I’d like to try painting on them. 

——Are you making a conscious effort to do work overseas?

Saya: I just paint, so in regard to exhibiting overseas, I think the gallerist, [Kohei] Sakaguchi is thinking about it for me. I really only paint, and ultimately, I only paint for myself. So I don’t have any particular place in mind to show the painting. But when you paint for an exhibition, the space affects the painting. So, I’m looking forward to that whether in Japan or overseas.

Saya Aokabi
Saya Aokabi was born in 1997. She creates two-dimensional works based on anime characters inspired by her childhood memories.

HENKYO is a gallery that recently opened on March 27th. The gallery held Saya Aokabi’s first exhibition, Mille Crepe, as part of its opening. Both Saya Aokabi and TIDE are represented by HENKYO.

1-17-3-105, Uehara, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Photography Takahiro Otsuji(go relax E more)
Translation Aya Apton


Atsushi Takayama

Born in Osaka Prefecture.Graduated from the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Literature, Doshisha University. After working for a video production company, He Joined INFAS Publications in 2013 .