It’s hard to look away from illustrator Sawako Kabuki’s entrancing yet unsettling new series

Drawing lots of tiny naked figures has long been a source of comfort for Sawako, but her disturbing new series of illustrations might not provide you with the same solace.

24 June 2021


In the couple of years since we last spoke to Tokyo-based illustrator Sawako Kabuki, a lot has changed – both in terms of her practice and the world at large. The latter however, isn’t all bad news for Sawako. She’s a longtime fan of wearing a mask in public, so what has turned into a daily hassle for most of us, is business as usual for her. “I love wearing masks – even before the pandemic hit – so I'm quite happy that this practice is now kind of mandatory,” she jokes. Though, with regards to her illustrations, there has been a significant upheaval. The style has changed drastically and the pared down aesthetic of her previously featured animations, Takoyaki Story and Ici, là et partout, has made way for a beautiful abundance of tiny details and textures.

One thing that remains largely unchanged however is the subject matter. A natural progression from the cheeky and comical drawings of a few years ago, recent work has seen Sawako drawing butts on an even smaller scale than before. She remains unafraid of using copious amounts of nudity and sexual references to communicate her ideas, and she continues to tackle taboo subjects with her work. One such project, titled I’m Late, takes the form of a short animated film and “focuses on the experiences of people missing their period or being late,” explains Sawako, who is currently working with Paris-based Miyu Productions to put the finishing touches on the project.

Elsewhere, Sawako has been playing around with new colour palettes, using lots of reds and blues – a combination she says she has been fascinated with since she was a teenager: “Like bulls hate and attack [the colour] red, there are a few colour combinations that have always aroused me… like magenta and cyan, red and blue, yellow and blue, peach and sky-blue etc. I use them depending on my mood.” These eye-catching colour palettes are frequently accompanied by the same naked, dark-haired, female figure that has populated Sawako’s illustrations for years. Only now, there’s more of her – a lot more.


(Copyright © Sawako Kabuki, 2021)

When the anonymous figure is not stuffed into a taco or head first into a bottle of beer with a lime between her legs, she can be found in the hundreds and thousands, going into and coming out of every nook, cranny and orifice. Drawing these nude figures over and over again is part of what Sawako refers to as “butt therapy”, which she uses to calm her mind. “This has a meditation-like effect on me, and is also very good when I need to think deeply about something,” she explains. But they’re not just entrancing to draw, they’re also a captivating sight for her viewers.

It’s hard not to be fascinated, and at the same time slightly repulsed, by the waves of tiny people that appear to replace bodily fluids and hair in Sawako’s illustrations. They pile up in skin, teeth, toenails and other more private parts in an unorderly fashion, where they are scraped, tweezed, pushed and pulled in intimate close ups. This love-hate reaction to the work is exactly the kind of response Sawako hoped for when she was making these drawings. She likens them to those infamous pimple popping and blackhead removal videos that so many of us watch in disgust and secret satisfaction.

But she also wants them to give rise to the same unsettling feelings that she experiences when she reads about space and ultimately realises our insignificance in the vastness of the universe. “When a diagram in a book about the solar system explains that Jupiter is surprisingly big compared to the size of Earth, I feel really overwhelmed,” she says. “I hope I can [evoke] a similar feeling of discomfort in my new series.”

Gallery(Copyright © Sawako Kabuki, 2021)

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(Copyright © Sawako Kabuki, 2021)

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About the Author

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.

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