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Imai Toonz is a comic artist, who is popular with youth and famous for his works, such as MTV’s “Top of Japan” program’s opening animation, Suntory “C.C.Lemon” CF work, and the character design of SEGA’s arcade game “Fighting Viper 2”. You probably know him with his cover design for Shift. He was also featured on Gasbook.

He created a highly influenced drawing style that produced dozens of imitators within and outside of Japan. It could be said that the boom of his works symbolizes the feeling of 90’s subculture, such as Japanimation (Japanese animation), and Techno. He has consistently been one step ahead of all the others.

Imai Toonz’s solo exhibition is being held at “Gallery Speak For” in Daikanyama, Tokyo, from 28 April to 10 June 2001. I interviewed him about this exhibition and his attitude as a creator

First of all, please let me know how this exhibition was realized.

This exhibition was realized on the invitation from Ms. Yoshida, a curator of Gallery Speak For. This exhibition was a three-person exhibit in the beginning, and then changed into a solo exhibition at the last minute. So this exhibition was held in a hurried schedule

The title of this exhibition “Toonz Camp” began with the proposal of the keyword “camp” from Ms. Yoshida. I thought “camp” was an interesting keyword also from the standpoint of contemporary arts, so I tried.

At first, I thought that I would draw a picture on a tent. But I found that I could not draw well because the tent’s material rejected paint and paint spread on the reverse side. The tent which is now exhibited here is the second one. It fell through. In this way, since research of the material was not completed, I decided to give it up.

I have arranged the works all over the hall in installation style. I actually stayed at a tent after all. I seemed to camp (laugh). There are some illustrations drawn for this exhibition: an illustration on the digitally collaged photograph and printed large; a painting on the door of a car, a part of which I did live painting in front of the visitor. During the term, I have still drawn a few. I also diverted some sold works from other exhibitions, because these have the same concept. In addition, there is an illustration with a light box in the tent and a small work painted on the tent of a play mobile (toy). And I have broadcasted animation by video.

I heard that you always have a story in your head and draw one scene in the story. What story is there in the present illustration?

I imagined a lonely campsite with a coniferous forest in the U.S.’s countryside as a stage. The photograph used for the background of an illustration was a collage of photos, which was close to my image, collected from the magazines. An enlarged photograph of the white birch that was often seen in the old gas station, nature treated materially by human beings, was my image to this illustration.

The strange family is coming for the camp to this lonely campsite. Nobody knows whether this family is a real family or not. It may be not the family of a blood relative but the family in a hip-hop sense.

I am observing it from outside. Although its history is not well known, its relation by no means looks good. It should not camp together. It is such a family.

This family is not enjoying the camp and is scribbling at various places with the spray can on one hand. When discussing the concept of a work, I don’t like my work turned into more than itself or less than itself, so I make a story for each work. Since it was necessary for this exhibition to transpose the flow chart of a concept to a story and to represent it, and I wanted to experience the space and the mood in the head, I placed keywords that hook. I thought that this led to live painting and installation. I also wanted to participate in this campsite. Therefore, visitors can also freely consider.

Does the family scribble on the tree?

Originally, scribble (graffiti) is the assertion that was ruined and overflowed in human society. It functions only within society. I wanted to represent “the contradictory feeling” that scribble is carried into nature. It is like human beings in nature. Although many people seem to feel nature by going to a campsite or a golf course, these are built on the destruction of the environment. Are they the family who sends a message to such nature? Or are they mere destructive junkies? Do they have an assertion? , There is probably no message about the destruction of the environment. When we human beings know that nature changes regardless of us, we feel our smallness and want to prove our existence on it. The first step toward the moon also began from the competition between states. Human beings are tagging ‘a significance of sense’ of their existence with words and assertions that nature cannot understand. Therefore, graffiti was chosen.

I feel intense graffiti-feeling for your style. What do you think of graffiti?

My works are called an American taste and bad taste (laugh), and I am actually influenced by graffiti. In order to represent my own feelings efficiently, I am collecting many of my favorite things, not only graffiti, but also comics, hip-hop, techno, which gives a hook to me as well as to the audience. I want to share with everybody the complicated feelings of these days that has a flood of information and influence. I do not want to persist in one representation. It’s hard for me.

Have you drawn the picture on the street?

No. I have not done it. From the time when I was at the first grade in a high school, I was interested in drawing pictures, but there was no such environment in my local area, Nagoya. There might be such environment. If I lived in Tokyo at that time, I might be doing it (laugh).

I think that original graffiti is a way for people to leave his assertion to other races and society as a message. Considering the meaning why Japanese draw graffiti, I just figured this should be the assertion of individual feeling rather than the racial or social problem. In the case of Japan, that is a solitude in that individuals are discriminated. Conversely, a faction in the society as a group, a self-assertion called individuality, a meaningless comparison theory, an ambiguous borderline, rather than a racial unit. I think that graffiti is a more complicated and difficult representation, which is not steadfast backing that a good thing is good. It is a word that cannot be expressed with words. It is difficult to express. I think it sad to only be called “scribble.” I think that the graffiti of Japan cannot be expressed only by it. In Japanese society, unless it is easy to understand, a work is not easily received. But I think that the easiness may be a good portion of Japan. There is no message from the first. Therefore, everybody is asking for individuality as a style, adding individuality to individuality.

Everybody is asking for ‘a significance of sense’ of existing easily. It becomes more complicated. It is a message that is valid only to these yellow-skinned races. Everybody that is not yellow wants to become the yellow. Japanese may be such a self-satisfied one. Everybody wants to claim now that Japanese society is moving by the feeling like the discrimination within Japanese. It’s just a quarrel among the same race. It is easy to do because everybody can understand. Therefore, everybody realizes anew that he is a Japanese and Japan is an island country. It is exciting to think, “Oh, I am at having known a few to the Japanese origin” (laugh). But if it is viewed from overseas, it cannot be understood eternally (laugh).

I often see your illustrations and works of comics in various media. Is such an exhibition held very well?

I held the plan exhibition at “NAF gallery” in Nagoya (till May 30), and also at the gallery “CAI” in Sapporo in January 2000.

I think that many people have an image of “Imai Toonz” as an illustrator or a visual creator, but your artistic approach like this is seldom known. In the special feature article of the magazine around 98, you said you wanted to charge and to carry out activity as a “creator” from now on. Please let me know what it became after that.

I did not have an intention of carrying out dramatic change. It is mental one. Since day-to-day output of the works was painful to me, I needed a time to input. After that, I have done the works of illustration, the works of comics, and the individual works. As a stance, I am almost the same. Only one method of representation was added and nothing has changed at the bottom. Although I do not know whether the expression “creator” is appropriate, I am allowed to use this.

Although I do work as a professional, in order to represent imperfect things freely, I want to use the stance, “creator.” I can consider again by having you look at the work or having the work put on various places. Or everyone may create a work together. I actually create freely. I feel sorry and appreciate it.

You are called by various titles, such as the comic artist, illustrator. Which is suit to you?

My main occupation is illustrator. But abroad, illustrator is considered to be a person describing a caricature, so I was said that comic artist is more suitable for me. In Japan, I call myself illustrator to acquire work easily. But I think that I am doing the genre “Imai Toonz”, in fact.

Is “Imai Toonz” a genre?

Some people asked me why “Imai Toonz” is a plural form. This is not my pen name but a genre, a shop name and a trademark.

The concept of “Imai Toonz” comes from a style like, “Japanese animation and the culture of comics affect an American comic, and if a Japanese called Imai imitates it and re-imports to Japan, what does it become?” If it is accepted as a sign, it can be said that it succeeds as a concept. And when it changes a form over various people and is repeatedly sophisticated, if it produces a newly well-shaped common sign, it is interesting.

And I think that I myself practice the genre “Imai Toonz” as a person who extracts “a shared form” that is neither picture nor sign, and a representation of “a cross between Japan and foreign countries.” But this is troublesome, so I make this a pen name (laugh). My mind to draw a good picture will not change, anyway.

I think that young illustrators with similar feelings have come out after the Imai Toonz birth. Although I do not know whether I may call them imitator, can you share some advice with such illustrators?

As a concept, you can follow my works, because my works comes from the stance that imitate the extracted form and make it develop. But due to a concept, if you imitate surface, you better investigate creators and thoughts that influenced me. If you cannot draw a picture well, a picture becomes a concept-like one and stops functioning without explanation. Therefore, training of drawing a picture is indispensable.

You majored in oil painting at Tama Art University. In the interview of a magazine, you said that you created the solid from wood using the hot bond. What did you create? What’s the relationship between this and the present style?

I can remember being university student, creating a furniture-like object and drawing the picture on this, melting a hot bond by the burner and stick it, creating human-like object. I have made the character from that time. The style of drawing is almost the same as that of now.

The concept was “My God” in a masochistic meaning. I thought that creating my god is interesting and made it possible to represent inside of a human. Avoiding a human shape slightly like gag comics and a shape with four hands, conversely, I tried to perform humane representation.

The style of my oil painting is similar to that of current work, but it is difficult to represent a line with oil painting. I stick to a line now. I have used the illustration as a motif from that time. For me, the illustration was a sign to represent the purpose.

By the way, you came from Nagoya and lived in Setagaya in Tokyo now. Please let me know the influence of the town on your production of works.

I came down to Tokyo from Nagoya at the age of 18, and have moved 5 times until now, from Kichijoji though Tsunashima in Yokohama, Higashi-Kitazawa in Setagaya, Setagaya-daita. Now I live in Nakameguro.

I am surprised to hear that you have moved so often. Do you like to move?

No, I don’t. But I have some reasons and came to live here.
In Nagoya, I lived in the shopping quarter called Sakae. That may affect my preference to live in a place with a river and waterfowl, like Tsunashima. So is Setagaya, I feel comfortable to live in a quiet place.

Oh, you lived in Sakae. It’s a really busy town. You mixed several feelings that you got at each place that you have lived, haven’t you?

I had been yearning after the housing complex. Since I lived in a house in the shopping quarter, the surroundings are mostly bars; I did not get friends of the same age. And I was a child with only one parent, so I have yearned after the familiar. These may affect the theme of my work.

I felt a well-ordered family element for a housing complex, a sequence of the systematic dwelling, a courtyard, nuclear family, and a systematic family structure. Therefore, I thought that Sakae was unattractive.

Actually, a housing complex is not a good environment. It is a regimented living environment, so we also have a negative image now. However, the housing complex was shining at that period in time.

The image of housing complex that I got from TV program “Ultraman Taro” was my image of Tokyo when I was a child. In this image, the mother looks psychedelic and the child of a wealthy family wears a thick terrible necktie and suspenders.

I see! When I was a child, I also watched Ultraman with the same feeling. The building of a housing complex made by that time looks brave somewhere and smart. The building in which I live now is also built in that period.

I have chosen the family at the bottom. You may find relevance between my home, my life and my work. The rest is the mood at that time, upper feeling, and after that, downer feeling, a flood of technology. The systematic thing seemed to be smart to me.

I know so many interesting creator of Nagoya graduate. Please let me know the influence from Nagoya.

Rather than a town, I think that the people are interesting in Nagoya. Whenever I return to Nagoya, I found many orderless people.

I think the reason why the people of Nagoya are so attractive lies on the cultural inferiority complex being located between Tokyo and Osaka. Nagoya has the environment that can catch the stance of both Tokyo and Osaka, so every person seems to have to choose the better one from the rulebook of two cities to catch up with. Therefore, Nagoya graduate has a feeling something like an assertion.

If you are bred in Nagoya, It is very hard to tell the fun of them, because so many people looks like you around there. That may be demonstrated only when they come out of Nagoya. I am just a country person to think like this.

If I search “Imai Toonz” on the Internet, a terrible number of hits will come up, but there is no homepage of yours. If you have a plan in the Internet, please let me know.

If I surf the Internet, I see many fans support me. I appreciate it. I want to repay the kindness.
I am scheduled to run a serial comic in so-net, in according with it, I wonder if I create my homepage. But the homepage only with a diary and BBS is not at all interesting, so I wonder how I should. I also worry that I have no time with a lot of work. But supposing I do, I want to make it function as a place of representation.

Recently, communication speed is becoming fast and it is become easy to use many images and heavy contents. Don’t you think it is interesting to collaborate with visual creator to build your homepage?

Well, I actually have created my own visual works in collaboration with other creators. I think whether I will try to find someone who I collaborate with to build my homepage.

Then, invite now! Are there any conditions?

I think that the owner of an individual site cannot pay money; I want someone to help me voluntarily. It is becoming tough to work alone, so I want those who help. Yes, I can pay money.

This is the last question. You run ahead of everything. How do you want to go ahead from now on?

I wanted to draw comics and create a meaningful work with a message all the time. I want to create such a work.

Please let me know the message concretely.

My ultimate message must be “love”, “peace” or so, because it is an eternal human theme and I am also human (laugh). I want to put this message on my personality and represent attractively. I am glad if I can represent it as an entertainment, using comics and movies, etc.

Please let me know your comment on the exhibition.

I want you to immerse yourself in this space, and I want you to feel a touch of live painting. At the hall, if you get the feeling that is not transmitted by pictures, I am very happy.

Date: 28th April – 10th June, 2001 (closed on every Monday)
Address: B-2F, 28-2, Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya, Tokyo
Tel: 03-5459-6385 Fax: 03-5459-6386

Imai Toonz
Born in 1971. Completed the graduate course of Tama University of Arts. Major works: MTV “Top of Japan” program’s opening animation, Suntory “C.C.Lemon” CF/poster work, SEGA arcade game ” Fighting Viper 2″ character design, SONY “GIG” cassette tape package illustration, and NIKE “Presto” E-CD animation.

Interview and Text: Chibashi
Translation: Hiroyuki Saito

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