Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

In the 1960s, I think there were four or five (very few) painters in Japan creating figurative works of art. However, they worked rather individually and I don’t think there was a general term for this. Critics only reacted to Japanese figurative art that was influenced by American pop art, which had just emerged. Therefore, apparently there was some resistance among artists against the term pop art. This is surely due to the fact that the moment their works were called ‘pop art’, they had to think of themselves as imitating American pop art.

Japan at the time was directly influenced by the consumer culture of American society; therefore I don’t think it would be wrong to say that it was just very natural to use mass-produced icons and symbols as painting motifs. However, I don’t know how individual artists labelled the works of art that they created under these circumstances. Artists probably didn’t know how to define them either and perhaps with a quiet voice they called them ‘pop-art-like’. However, in the 1960s there was a critic, I think either Nakahara Yūsuke or Hariu Ichirō, who organised an exhibition with works by four artists, including myself, and the exhibition was titled Sightseeing (Kankō). I think he understood pop art as one form of urban landscape.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

I have never called myself a pop artist explicitly but at the time, in 1964, I made a series of screenprints which referenced the style of advertisement posters and in 1966 I created paintings which provocatively presented women with red skin. The screen print works were misunderstood and later categorised as posters; however, recently, they have been exhibited as works of pop art in American museum exhibitions. The paintings were shown at the Centre Pompidou in 1986 in their exhibition Japon des avant-gardes 1910–1970s. As a result, Japanese museums quickly began to collect my paintings of red women and now I don’t even have a single painting of them left with me. After 45 years, in America, these works have now finally become accepted as Japanese pop. In 1967, my poster-style silkscreens were for the first time exhibited in America – this was at a gallery in New York which only dealt with posters by pop artists – and they all entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. At the time, as the advertisement style and the Japanese on the works were not understood, some people called them posters and others called them Japanese-style pop art.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

In the late 1950s, I was a painter but due to the necessities of life, I also began to do graphic design. And then, in 1960, I moved to Tokyo and worked for the Nippon Design Center. And, against the background that I have explained, I created silkscreens and paintings of red women. In 1960, at the Paris Youth Biennale, I presented silkscreen prints and was awarded the Grand Prize for Prints. I created these works with a clear understanding and expression that they are works of pop art. Afterwards, for the New Pop Image exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York I was asked to lend my ‘multiple work’ as a work of pop art. However, my economic life relied on my design work and at the time, I created a large number of silkscreen prints that were pop art-like (and thoroughly Japanese-looking).

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

I created KISS KISS KISS on request by the Sogetsu Art Center, which promoted Japanese avant-garde art. At the time, there was an animation exhibition titled Animation Festival, focusing on manga artists, and against this background, I was asked to create a film. However, I mostly made this work because I had had the intention of creating an art film anyway.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

In KISS KISS KISS, I assembled a large number of kiss scenes from American comic magazines, copied them and then, always beginning with the part that depicts the lips, I gradually ripped them. At the end, all the pictures were torn and not even one was left. The dada critic and artist Hans Richter saw the work and commented on it very positively, writing about it in a book entitled Dada: Art and Anti-Art. Following this, he planned to show it in New York but as I didn’t have the financial means to create a copy of the film, I could not take this great opportunity. If the film can be shown in London this time, this would make me happy and I would be really honoured.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

Information about pop art, especially from America and England, came to Japan gradually. I went to New York in 1967 in order to meet these pop artists. Andy Warhol’s friend John Wilcock (later he became one of the editors of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine) was a collector of my screen prints. Andy Warhol was interested in my work so I went to Warhol’s factory. Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and Tom Wesselmann were also interested in my silk screen works so whenever I went to New York I met them as well. Wesselmann was actually more interested in my red women paintings than in my silk screens. 

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

Commercial art was my job in order to survive; however, I have never really been influenced by other commercial art. The influence of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, illustrations in old Japanese novel books and American as well as European contemporary art was a lot stronger.

Was there a feeling at the time that you doing something important and new, making a change…?

I’m quite confident about my influence on different parts of Japanese culture in the 1960s and 1970s, due to my work in the fields of design, painting, theatre art, fashion, textile (my collaboration with Issey Miyake has been going on for 45 years), photography, LP covers (Santana; Miles Davis; Earth, Wind and Fire and many more), architecture, film, TV title backgrounds, film appearance (for example in Oshima Nagisa’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief), a TV drama appearance, appearance in Paul Schrader’s Mishima etc. I often collaborated with the writer Mishima Yukio and also worked with the dramatists Terayama Shūji and Kara Jūrō, dance choreographer Hijikata Tatsumi, and the above-mentioned film director Ōshima Nagisa – together, we influenced and changed the youth culture of that time strongly and created a revolution.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

In Japan at the time it was not possible yet for young artists to have a solo exhibition in an art museum; however, there were art exhibitions in the exhibition spaces of department stores instead. In 1970, 70,000 visitors came to my solo exhibition at the Matsuya Ginza department store within just six days, which was a record. Ninety per cent of the visitors were young people in their twenties and they were queuing on the stairs from the first to the seventh floor. When Mishima Yukio saw this, he also wanted to have a solo exhibition and in the same year he had a solo show in a different department store. Two or three months later, he rushed into the self-defence forces, failed to inspire a coup d’état and committed suicide (seppuku). 

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now? 

KISS KISS KISS is a work of the twentieth century, and looking back at it now, it is a story from a long, long time ago. After I had ripped all the images I thought that I would like to collect all the fragments and reconstruct the original pictures. If I had had more money, I would have made various films but I was just too poor at the time.

September 2015