By Yuko Shimizu
160 pages, hardcover, $30, published by Gestalten, www.gestalten.com
“As a woman in Japan,” New York illustrator Yuko Shimizu told Communication Arts in 2008, “you can’t really go higher than where you started.” This is the raison d’être of Shimizu: Restrained, she cut loose; obedient, she rebelled; against odds, she rose. Her story is well known: As a girl her family moved from Japan to NYC where she lived until seventeen. For the next eighteen years she lived in Japan, but altogether unhappily: “I went back and couldn’t adjust,” she says.
During the second Japanese turn, the artist’s life turned prosaic, moving with sullen predictability from university to crap salary and benefits ‘til death. Day after dreary day she walked the corridors of Tokyo BigCorp, moving sideways but nowhere, sustained by the modest pleasure of in-house leaflets celebrating minor triumphs of those who thrived like shitakes in the damp shadows of corporate forests. The experience seared and made her yearn for spiritual freedom.
Plotting and saving four years worth of expenses, at 34 she flew one-way to New York. There, an artist erupted from a netherworld of hair-covered, spoo-leaking popsicles, roaring tsunamis of pierced tongues and pubic hair, gasping mouths and disembodied breasts. Gestalten’s monograph of Shimizu’s work is a graphic tour of a quicksilver mind raining euphoria, ice cream—and sex. It reveals an artist in full flower, fearless, fecund, fantastic. Imagine her former colleagues seeing her book in the BigCorp canteen, biting hard peaches and sipping tepid tea while praying The Shimizu Code holds the secret to escape.
At SVA, Shimizu created Letters of Desire—Alphabet Book Project. For the first time, Gestalten publishes it in entirety, from A (Anesthetized Adolescent) to Z (Zip Down [Lady]). Letter U features Ultimate Unity 1 & 2, two drawings of Siamese women, joined at the waist. In one she has two torsos, four arms, four breasts and two heads. In the other she has four legs, two vaginas and two sets of hips. Co-joined yet asunder, two halves not whole. Strange unity.
Shimizu is oft questioned about the “marriage” of her two selves, Japanese-Shimizu and New York-Shimizu. Reconciling their relationship to the media seems her fate. This time she offers up a new answer:
“My life is a not so much a marriage of two cultures as it is one Siamese twin. I cannot separate the two parts of my personality. I once hated Japan so much that I tried to draw like an American, but failed. I now know that I could no more cut off my Japanese self any more than I could cut off my head or legs.”
But she can draw it if you ask. —Matthew Porter