Yoshitomo Nara: Big-Headed Children Telling a Story

The Japanese artist sees no limits to artistic expression, bridging different art forms, styles, and mediums, in order to create both mentally and visually captivating pieces.


DTAICHWOM SIMLOOA, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Yoshitomo Nara’s pieces were featured at the 2021 Christie’s Hong Kong Auction preview. It showcased styles of the Superflat movement, including flat coloring and lack of depth.

A wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked child with a short bob cut stands alone in a dainty red dress, surrounded by overwhelming emptiness. Her protruding head covers most of the canvas,  where viewers come to recognize notes of defiance in a set of piercing green eyes. The painting’s simplicity amplifies an unexplainable tension, evoking feelings of suspicion in viewers. At a closer look, it is obvious that the child’s right arm is tucked behind her back, raising the ominous question: what is she hiding?

The title of this popular Yoshitomo Nara art piece, Knife Behind Back (2000), effectively answers all inquiries. Through this piece, Nara emphasizes feelings of rebellion with the unsettling contrast between violence and its doe-eyed beholder. This iconography is common across Nara’s works, where he heals his inner and past self by expressing difficult emotions through infantilized images including big-headed children and comical animals. 

Born in the Aomori agricultural prefecture of Japan in 1959, Yoshitomo Nara was the youngest of three children. His parents were largely occupied with work and there was a large age gap between him and his two older brothers. Thus, Nara’s lonely childhood shaped a sensitive and introverted character. Feeling completely isolated from other children and restless from the small town’s mundane lifestyle, he immersed himself in nature and fairytales. “The inadequacy of the outer world enriched my inner world,” said Nara. Engaging himself in one-sided conversations with trees, dogs, and pigs inspired his imagination and creativity. 

As an adolescent, Nara fell in love with the rebellious tones of western punk rock music, an extreme contrast to his demure nature. The young punk enthusiast spent his allowance on albums and records over school books, nurturing his desire for art and creativity over the traditional Japanese norms. Living in an agricultural area, the covers of these albums and records were one of Nara’s only exposures to art. He often spent his time creating art based on the album covers, doodling to his favorite songs. “I pulled the record out of the cover and started listening with the cover in my hand. Little by little, I constructed the world of the record using imagination,” said Nara. 

His passion for music would go on to be the muse of his later artworks. Pieces such as Change the History (2007), Rock’n Roll the Roll (2009), and Lonely Guitarist (2015), feature children strumming guitars or ukuleles. Fragments of punk rock or folk music lyrics are included in the titles and even directly on the canvas. 

Nara is involved in the Superflat movement, originally created by artist Takashi Murakami. Artists use their contemplative 2D graphic designs to criticize the shallow nature of Japanese consumer culture. The group of avant-garde artists incorporate shapes and coloring that lack depth and perspective. Instead, the “depth” of these paintings is found through their profound meanings. 

Although his work is associated with Superflat styles, Nara does not allow his art to be labeled, continuing to explore many different art styles throughout his works. Critics have claimed that his art is influenced by American pop art, cartoon imagery, and Japanese kawaii culture. However, his childhood spent talking to animals, studying fairy tales, and listening to punk music records is the true inspiration behind the themes seen across his pieces. Nara once stated “My works’ roots are my childhood, not pop culture, around me there were orchards, sheep and horses; I read fairytales rather than comics.” 

Fire, 2009

In his piece Fire, Nara maturely reflects on these childhood experiences of rebellion and isolation. A single child peeks over the hill curiously, mesmerized by a house blazing with fire. The eyes are the focal point of the image, lit up in awe as Nara bridges the mischievous and naive essence of the youth. In past works, Nara conveyed emotions with simple shapes, lacking depth and thought. For instance, anger was directly conveyed with a basic triangular shape. However, his own experience with aging and deteriorating eyesight showed him the importance of his subject’s eyes. He comments “They say human eyes are the mirror of the soul, and I used to draw them too carelessly…I became more interested in expressing complex feelings in a more complex way.” 

At 51 years old, Nara’s perception of the world was completely transformed. Then of course, a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, followed by a nuclear explosion would do that. The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion were traumatizing for many Japanese people. The traumatic earthquake and tsunami left over 18,000 people dead, destroying thousands of houses and damaging about a million more, all occurring just miles away from Nara’s studio. In the devastating aftermath, Nara felt helpless as an artist. “I was so depressed that I couldn’t help feeling that what I’d been doing was totally meaningless and useless,” said Nara. 

During this period of creative block, Nara fell back in love with the tangibility of sculpting. The disaster that struck his hometown encouraged his self-reflection, and he concluded that he had lost communication with his inner character. “I realized that I’d long neglected the ‘conversation with myself,’ which had been the foundation of my creative activity,” said Nara. In order to reconnect with himself and his core values, he turned to sculpting, referring to it as “hand-thinking.” As a child, Nara spent time crafting things by hand, through kneading clay. “I guess I wanted to go back to a point where I could communicate with my childhood memory again…I wanted to go back to that ‘origin’ of the pleasure of using my hands, of making something that escapes evaluation,” said Nara. 

Miss Forest, 2020

Tranquility crosses over a forest spirit’s heavy eyelids, a delicate smile resting on her lips. Her clumped hair rises to the sky, resembling the cone shape of a lush snow-covered evergreen tree. Nara describes Miss Forest as “…a thing that was connected to the earth, born from the soil of the earth, that grew into the sky… into outer space and thus communicated with the universe like an antenna.” Traces of Nara’s “hand-thinking” are embedded into every curve of her face, finger markings covering her button nose, leafy hair, and closed eyes. The 25-foot 7-inch tall painted bronze sculpture is his largest creation to date. The origins of this work take inspiration from Shintoism, a religion which centers around nature, and has deep roots within Nara’s childhood, his father and grandfather both being Shinto priests. Through Miss Forest, Nara is able to rediscover this spirituality within himself. “I think of Indigenous people who climb to high places in order to communicate with the sky and recite prayers. There is something similar to this that I feel exists inside of me,” said Nara. 

Nara’s non-conformist reflections of his personal experiences with challenging emotions appeal to many, who see an image of themselves in that tiny child and its menacing green eyes. “Nara’s moody artworks match my emotions a lot of the time, and I actually use some of his art as widgets on my phone,” said Vanessa Wu ’25. Nara’s works bridge Eastern and Western cultures, appealing to viewers of all ages with universal themes of anxiety, isolation and rebellion. They give a new value to synthetic art with powerful emotions that are almost tangible to viewers. As Nara continues to transform the artistic world, audiences from Japan, Shanghai, the United States and Britain wait eagerly for his emotive exhibitions

“My works’ roots are my childhood, not pop culture, around me there were orchards, sheep and horses; I read fairytales rather than comics,” said Yoshitomo Nara.