Cute & Creepy: It's a Balancing Act
Kawaii is a colorful, cutesy juggernaut — and if the so-called pink globalization is anything to go by, its domestic and global reach will only continue to grow.
By no means is that a bad thing.
But in true zen fashion, we say there does need to be balance.
Light needs its darkness.
My Melody needs her Kuromi.
Heartwarming moments need mystifying unease somewhere down the line.
So it’s nice to know that Parabolica-Bis and other advocates of alternative culture exist to provide that balance — and that they’re closer to us than we might think.
Top 7 Eerie Artworks From Parabolica-Bis
#7: Oh, the Humanity
“Boy C (Navy Blue Jacket)”
— Miwako Yoshida
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2013’s Shounen to Usagi (“Youths & Rabbits”), 2019’s Fragments
Details: A mainstay at Parabolica-Bis’s cafe and shop for more than half a decade
Every work of art has a story to tell — but it doesn’t have to stop at one.
Single artworks weaving multiple stories depending on where you look is nothing new: the Mona Lisa’s emotional ambiguity, for instance, has intrigued art aficionados and academics for generations. But what if those stories depended on where you’re looking from?
A glimmer of hope in one angle; longing and despair in the next.
Fear and apprehension from one side; courage and defiance from the other.
Who is this boy, and what has he lived through? What has he seen?
The possibilities seem endless — which makes the doll, ironically, all kinds of human. In a sad, mysterious sort of way.
What stories can you see? Let us know!
Yoshida makes each doll’s outfit herself, aiming for a classic wardrobe that matches their individual personalities. Wool fabrics in navy, black, and gray help achieve this.
This natural, identifiable look might be what allowed Boy C to grace the cover of Mayumi Nagano’s novel Tennen-rika Shounen. (We assume that’s him, from his hands and the color of his clothing.)
#6: You Are What You Eat… Or Part Thereof
“Strange Collection Box #76”
— Shintaro Kago
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2017’s Strange Circus
Details: Only 100 boxes were ever created, each with a different design
Who — or rather, what — is our green-haired heroine?
Is she the red seabream atop her head (tai, 鯛) that she so closely resembles?
Or maybe the rice in her hands, upon which sushi chefs place said bream and other fish anyway?
And while we’re at it, by what sorcery can she squeeze her chopsticks like that and still not let the scrumptious sushi in her right hand fall to bits?
...More importantly, how does one learn to harness that power?
This artwork has us staring blankly into space, questioning the nature of our own existence — eerily, not at all unlike the two characters it depicts. A great example of how art inspires and challenges us, making us question what we know about the world around us.
A strange collection box for a strange collection of thoughts.
Credit: Parabolica-Bis official Twitter
This is one of artist Shintaro Kago’s tamer works. The so-called grandmaster of the grotesque is lauded for his surreal shock value that “inspire[s] as much awe as discomfort.”
Want your very own custom portrait? At Kago’s official site you can choose from a selection of 48 brutal scenarios based on your own likeness! Will it be “Alien,” “Creepshow,” or “Cut like a cake” today? Decisions, decisions...
#5: Whatever You Say I Am
“My Animal Self, My Toy Self”
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2016’s LIEN/miRA [SELFY SYNDROME]
Details: Our true self may be far less glamorous than we hope (or believe) it to be
Say you work in retail, it’s 10 minutes before closing, and in waltzes that one annoying customer who always stirs trouble. Boy, do you really hate their guts. Still, you bow and give your usual uber-genki welcome greeting (”Irasshaimase!”). After all, okyakusama wa kamisama — “the customer is God.”
It’s then that your colleague beside you stifles a chuckle and whispers this to you:
“Me, zenzen warattenai.”
Literally: “There’s no laughter in your eyes at all.”
Implicitly: “You’re acting nice, but your aura screams ‘Get lost!’, and it shows.”
At the end of the day, we never really know who we are. We groom ourselves to be picture-perfect, but deep down we may just be damaged goods. What we assume to be our true self might merely be external perception: a reflection in the mirror, a photograph, a friend’s opinion of us.
That’s the kind of self-discrepancy this somber artwork highlights.
Politeness and formality are a staple of Japanese society. But so too is the dichotomy between one’s outward behavior (tatemae) and their actual innermost desires (honne). In a culture where image is important, harmony is cherished, and public contests are often deliberately avoided, this divide is made all the more concrete.
Perhaps the little white untruths born from that dichotomy are what made Japan rank 4th in this 2013 TV survey, which asked 100 people from 39 countries a simple question: “Do you often tell lies?”
#4: Bottoms Up
“Down Down Down”
— Hitomi Murakami
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2019’s Akatsuki: Twilight on the Horizon
Details: Alice-themed cup and saucer
A pair of disembodied legs might not exactly be a great invitation to partake in a beverage at first glance. Is Alice even okay? Has her pursuit of the White Rabbit simply gotten her in a literal tight spot, or is she actually seriously injured?
The very concept of the artwork is a little unsettling to say the least. And that's even before getting to the fact that the cup's body is, ironically, Alice's own; the handle, her dress's ribbon.
Still, it does remind us that we can draw happiness from where seemingly none may exist. That we must sometimes make do with what we have.
Because it’s no secret that one of the keys to happiness is finding amusement in the little things, no matter how small.
Fortune comes in by a merry gate. (“Warau kado ni wa fuku kitaru.”)
— Japanese proverb
Crossing the road? The asphalt’s lava.
Riding a bike? Pedal while standing and you’re the king of the world.
Raining cats and dogs? Shawshank Redemption.
Drinking out of this cup without feeling awkward or embarrassed? Hell, why not. Make it a test of skill and try to get every last drop while you’re at it.
A unique nature motif runs through Murakami’s body of work — focusing not on life, as is typical with flora, but rather death.
#3: A Not-So-White Wedding
“Wedding” (KEKKON SHIKI)
— Trevor Brown
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: 2018’s Urbangarde 10th Anniversary
Details: Canvas illustration for Japanese pop-rock trio Urbangarde
Shinto weddings are a solemn affair — and understandably so.
Modeled after the actual marriage ceremony of Crown Prince Yoshihito (the eventual Emperor Taisho) at the Tokyo Imperial Palace in 1900, the concept of purification and tradition permeates the entire occasion. The bride’s snow-white garments symbolize her being imbued with the “colors” of the groom’s family — its customs, its traditions, the whole gamut.
...But none of that applies here.
Gone is the chaste imagery of a white wedding — and in its place, a bride stained crimson (presumably the likeness of Urbangarde vocalist, Yoko Hamasaki). The only color she’s been imbued with is blood red.
Are those blotches or bullet holes that pepper her flowing kimono?
Was it violence or romance that caused those bruises on her neck?
How has the celebration of a new life devolved into a representation of death?
Plenty of questions remain, but so too does the intriguing urge to further explore the eroguro and Urbangarde abyss.
Japan-based, UK-born artist Trevor Brown devotes himself to an art style known as eroguro (a portmanteau of “eroticism” and “grotesque”), which focuses on “eroticism, sexual corruption, and decadence.”
He’s done CD jacket illustrations for Urbangarde in the past — and judging by their music catalog, we think it might just be a match made in heaven.
Credit: Trevor Brown official Twitter
#2: Chibi Horror Picture Show
— Tari Nakagawa
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: Release event for 2018’s Monogatari no naka no shoujo (“The Girl in the Story”)
Details: Small mascot dolls exclusively bundled with the above book at the event
Ghastly off-white faces and empty eye sockets aren’t exactly things to fawn over. Neither are descriptions like “leather kid body” (presumably kid leather) or “growing doll” (what this means is anyone's guess, but at least we can rule out haunted dolls that grow human hair), for that matter.
As such, like the other artworks on this list, we venture that kawaii was not specifically on the agenda during creation. And yet there’s a certain charm to these little guys that can’t be denied — from their colorful patchwork outfits, to their small stature, to their simple digitless limbs.
Plus there’s the whole chibi (“mini”) factor playing with our minds.
Why are all these critters dressed so lavishly?
Why do animal heads rest on clearly human bodies?
The answer may be more unnerving than the actual art itself.
Japanese society’s obsession with chibi might be more scientific than you think:
”Tiny, carefully made items [may] bring us joy because they make us want to play. [Cuteness] triggers not just a protective impulse, but also a childlike response that encourages fun.”
#1: Cries and Dolls
“The New Duchess”
— Tari Nakagawa
In a Nutshell
Exhibition: Release event for 2019’s Kotori-tachi (“Little Birds”)
Details: Ball-jointed doll made to complement the above book
We saved the best for last.
Welcome to both the tip of the iceberg and, ironically, the most captivating depths of Parabolica-Bis’s uncanny valley. A subculture all of its own. Your host and guide — Tari Nakagawa, dollmaker.
Ball-jointed dolls feature spherical joints and elastic inner frames, allowing for more unrestricted movement than standard varieties. Coupled with their detailed visages and delicate anatomy, they’re an eerie celebration of the human form — even if, at times, that form is twisted, bent, and broken.
There’s an unmistakable artistic beauty here that prevents us from looking away. We wouldn’t go so far as to call it morbid curiosity, but still...
Dull, lifeless gaze.
Sunken, hollow features.
Stern, pursed lips.
These are no Barbies, that’s for sure.
And yet, given that their popularity is enough to warrant a huge annual expo (Dolls Party) centered around them, they may very well be just as iconic — right up there with more traditional Japanese dolls.
Inspired to make a few dolls of your own? Nakagawa holds workshops three times a month in Sapporo where you can flex your ball-jointed muscles.
Behind the Art
All About Parabolica-Bis
An art space located in the Asakusabashi area of Tokyo (itself famous for its traditional doll stores). Operated by the culture magazine Yaso (夜想, “nighttime fantasy”), it strove to promote young artists and their works directly to the general public in ways that printed matter never could. Though its doors have since closed — save for a temporary reopening for a special exhibition in November 2020 — it continues to act as a platform for visual representation through its online store.
Credit: Rococo no Kaze
Parabolica-Bis housed four gallery spaces, spread across two floors.
・Galleria Nacht: “As quiet as a midnight forest.”
・Galleria Mattina: “As gentle as the morning sun.”
・Quartier Blanc: “World of white.”
・Tana: “Room of bountiful books.”
Yaso: Lifeblood of Parabolica-Bis
A typical Yaso magazine consists of full-page photographs, columns, interviews, and other content covering everything from fine art to cinema, animation, and theater. Each issue focuses on a different theme, such as vampires, stuffed animals, Victorianism — and, of course, dolls themselves.
Yaso also produces direct collaborations with artists themselves, such as the Monogatari no naka no shoujo book mentioned in the penultimate entry on our list (Petit).
Releases are exclusive to Japan, so drop ZenMarket or ZenPlus a line if you’d like to get your hands on some.
Parabolica-Bis & Yaso: An Abridged Timeline
・Avant-garde publisher "Atelier Peyotl" (Peyotl Koubou in Japanese) founded by Yuichi Konno.
・Publishes fantasy literature and art coverage, including Yaso in its original incarnation.
・“Peyotl” is a species of hallucinogenic cactus (no joke).
Throughout 1979 – 1999
・35 editions of the original Yaso hit the stands.
・Themes: “Utopia,” “Cadavers,” “Refugees,” “Gluttony,” “Angels,” “Mannequins,” and more
・Atelier Peyotl disbands, having officially ceased publishing in 1998.
・Studio Parabolica founded by Milky Isobe.
・Isobe was involved in the establishment of Atelier Peyotl more than 20 years earlier.
・Yaso re-enters publication with its newest release, “gothic.”
・Yuichi Konno serves as editor-in-chief.
・Parabolica-Bis art space and café opens its doors.
・Kicks things off with “sense of beauty” exhibition to coincide with new eponymous Yaso issue.
・Parabolica-Bis online store goes live.
Eager to Start Collecting? Visit ZenPlus!
The dolls and other works covered here are largely “one of a kind” in nature, so blink and you’ll miss them.
However, ZenPlus currently has one very special ball-jointed doll available.
Crafted by renowned Hokkaido artisan, instructor, and Parabolica-Bis collaborator Koitsukihime, it comes to us courtesy of Yuichi Konno, one of the driving forces behind Parabolica-Bis itself.
Check out the photos below to get a feel for Koitsukihime's iconic art style!
View available doll's item page
If you're looking to purchase from Japanese art stores online, ZenMarket and ZenPlus have got your back.
Are you a kawaii collector, or an advocate of eeriness?
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