Lunching pandas and conversations with ghosts: 90s anime merges with surrealism in Hand of Umi’s illustrations

Inspired by the tranquillity and wisdom of Japanese culture, the illustrator turns everyday social interactions into surreal illustrative delights.

10 November 2021


Scroll through Hand of Umi’s Instagram account and you’ll see a clear reference to Japanese anime along with a dollop of surrealism too. The illustrator’s characters interact with anthropomorphised cats, pandas and along the way, a ghost or two. Evidently, Hand of Umi takes a thing or two from Japanese contemporary art, so you may in fact be surprised to learn that Hand of Umi’s real name is in fact James and instead of residing on one of the 6,852 islands that make up Japan, he lives in Brighton on the south coast of the UK.

As a child, James drew comics obsessively. And unsurprisingly, he used to watch a lot of anime TV shows, telling us, “there used to be an anime channel that I watched every night.” Over the years, there was a time when he was more interested in making ambient music, thinking his drawing was no good. But then, over lockdown, James found the medium again as a way to stay relaxed. “As an introvert,” he adds, “drawing is therapy and very important to me. It helps me to stay free of anxious thoughts, by creating a calm, dreamy world I can escape into.”

The viewer can viscerally feel this across James’ work. Tranquil hues blend into various tonal backgrounds and through James’ illustrations, we are welcomed into calming scenes whether that be tucking into a Friday night movie, diving into a nourishing meal straight from the bento box, or drinking tea with a mountainous view pitched out the window. If you listen to James’ music, his illustrations go hand in hand with the ambient sounds which feature bird songs and gentle pan flutes. In turn, transporting the listener to the crisp freshness of the outdoors.

Entirely self-taught, James acquired a taste for the surrealist approach in all his digital works. He likes to leave the storyline up to the viewer but at the same time “it is important to me that each picture makes the viewer feel a sense of peace or calmness.” As anime usually has a strong narrative running throughout its compositions, James also likes to embed this within his artworks. He looks specifically to anime from the 90s, surrealism, Japanese ambient music (such as Horishi Yoshimura) as well as other contemporary illustrators such as María Medem and George Wylesol who also look to the flat graphics of Japanese art in their practices.


Copyright © Hand of Umi, 2021

The ultimate message of the artwork is down to the eye of the beholder, but that being said, James does have his favourites. Looking through his portfolio, he points out a particularly special artwork that sees a woman being haunted by a ghost who has entered her house at night. “The ghost looks as scared as she does,” he says on the eery work. But to the illustrator, the work bears a wider meaning. “To me, this represents the difficulty of making food first impressions,” says James.

Elsewhere, another scene that James is fond of sees him depict a woman eating lunch with a panda. Like the aforementioned artwork, the idea behind this illustration is rooted in social interaction. James drew it as a simple representation of friendship, friends catching up with loved ones over good food. “I am happy with how this came out because it feels a bit nostalgic to me,” he adds. Drawing inspiration from the calmness and wisdom of Japanese culture, James also likes to incorporate a peaceful symbol or two throughout his work. From the cherry blossom tree to the rolling contours of mountains synonymous with the East Asian culture.

Expanding his practice for the future, James is hoping to start creating cartoons and videos alongside his illustration practice. He wants to immerse himself in art forms that can tell even more of a story. And whether that’s through stills, moving image, music or cassette design, James is looking forward to the next step in the creative journey.

GalleryCopyright © Hand of Umi, 2021

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Copyright © Hand of Umi, 2021

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

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