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Two of Japan’s rising stars interview each other about family, creative expression, and the difference between painting and acting

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Actor Ukon Onoe is a rising star in Japan in the prestigious world of Kabuki, the classical theater genre marked by elaborate costumes, highly stylized performances, and the distinctive make-up by its performers.

Coming from a family of Kabuki performers, the 30-year-old Tokyo-based actor has been performing since the age of 7. In addition to Kabuki, Ukon has also acted in film and television, evne winning a Japan Academy Award for Best New Actor.

Ukon recently visited the studio of another rising star in Japan’s art world, Yukimasa Ida. Ida is a 31-year-old contemporary artist who works primarily in paintings, sculptures, and prints. Like Ukon, Ida is also comes from an artistic family. His father, Katsumi Ida, is a well-known sculpture artist in Japan.

ARTnews Japan joined Ukon and Ida in the painter’s gymnasium-sized studio to record an impassioned talk between the two young artists, covering everything from their families to their creative mindsets:

The following talk has been translated and edited for clarity and length.

Ukon: It’s a very spacious and cool studio. Among them, this painting in the back [pictured in the photo above] is a stunner in terms of size and presence.

Ida: The painting was completed last year at the request of Mr. Yusaku Maezawa. I had a theme that I had wanted to paint for a long time, and he told me that I could do whatever I wanted, so I let myself paint it as the culmination of my 20s. Then he said, “You really did whatever you wanted”.

Ukon: Even at this size, do you suddenly draw it full-size?

Ida: I made a blueprint and painted this based on it. Inspired by Courbet’s “The Painter’s Studio”, it depicts the world of death and the world of the living. I am the one holding the paintbrush here, and the white canvas is the future. I painted from one end to the other, and in the end it took me three years.

Ukon: Three years! Do you sometimes not take requests?

A photo of contemporary artist Yukimasa Ida's studio, showing several paintings against white walls and a grey concrete floor covered in art supplies.

Japanese contemporary artist Yukimas Ida’s studio.

Ida: Of course there is. I will talk with the client about various things under the condition that they allow me to do what I want to do. I don’t want to leave behind something with half-baked vibes, because my work will remain forever, and it will go out into the world as my expression.

Ukon: That is very different from the expression I am doing. A live stage is something that does not remain. The “En(演)” character in the word “Acting” is written as “Tiger(寅)” in “Sanzui(氵)”, right?

The work is to draw a tiger on water, so no matter how heroic the tiger is, it will soon fade away. In other words, it is like creating an atmosphere, and, even if a Kabuki performance is preserved on film, that atmosphere can only be experienced by those who saw it that day in the theater.

I feel that every performance is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

Ida: Once in a lifetime, isn’t that a nice word? I have consistently used the concept of “once in a lifetime” in my work. I want to express a moment that will never happen again.

Ukon: Ida-san, your father is the sculptor Katsumi Ida. How much influence do you think your father had on you?

Ida: I used to play in my father’s studio when I was little, and I watched him create, so I think there is definitely an influence. But there was a time when that was a complex. Everywhere I went, my father’s name came up, and I really hated that. But after doing a lot of research on my dad and his family history, I was convinced and came to respect him. Respect from rebellion. Then I started to feel more at ease and thought, “I just have to live my life”. The complex was also a driving force, and I was able to find a kind of grit and passion in my own way.

Ukon: Environment affects us in a much deeper way than we think. I have tried many different things, but in the end I feel that Kabuki is the best fit for me because of the power of the environment that has nurtured my senses and ways of thinking.

Onoe stands in front of one of Ida's paintings.

Onoe stands in front of one of Ida’s paintings.

Ida: Ukon-san seems to be much more involved with his family than I am. The world of traditional performing arts is, in a sense, a special or different world from the general public.

Ukon: Of all the special worlds, ours is an even more special case. My great-grandfather was a Kabuki actor named Onoe Kikugoro VI, and his daughter, my grandmother, married into a Kabuki music family called Kiyomoto. So, although I was born into a family of Kabuki actors, I was not born into a family of Kabuki actors.

Ida: I see.

Ukon: Then, when I was a small child, I was fascinated by the images of my great-grandfather’s kabuki performances that I saw at my grandmother’s house, and I expressed my desire to become a kabuki actor. And when I was allowed to perform on stage for the first time, thanks to the people around me who wanted to give me an experience, I fell even more deeply in love with the role. During my adolescent years, it was very difficult for me because of the tension between my father and me.

Ida: Similarly, when I was still an art student, we would argue about art every time I returned home. My father was a senior who had been in the art world for decades, so I think he felt like, “I won’t accept you so easily”. But nowadays we get along well, and my father often says to me, “We’re family, but I’ve never thought of you as my son.” I interpret this to mean that he sees me as an artist, and that it is a compliment to me.

Ukon: When did you start painting seriously?

Ida: I was 16 years old. There was a time when I hated painting. But with the help of my father’s words, I learned how to think about painting, and I began to enjoy it. I failed many times in my university entrance examinations, but as I studied in frustration, I also realized the fun of painting. Between my history of perseverance and my history of realizing the appeal of painting, I somehow became completely absorbed in painting, and I began to think that I was going to become a painter.

A picture of Ida's studio showing white walls and a grey concrete floor and numerous experimental paintings and sculptures.

In Yukimasa Ida’s studio, “experiments” can be seen everywhere, such as wood carvings and paintings inspired by the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Sharaku Toshusai.

Ukon: Where do you get your inspiration for your works?

Ida: It is a case-by-case basis. Sometimes I have a stock of images of what I want to create, so I use those images, and sometimes I just go with the flow when I want to express the atmosphere I felt on my trip. Abstract paintings are the output of images, thoughts, and concepts that are still unclear.

On the other hand, if I have a clear image, I output it clearly. As for the motifs of people, I basically paint people who have influenced me. So there are people who are close to me, and there are people who have changed the world.

Ukon: You mentioned earlier that Yusaku Maezawa’s painting took about three years to complete. Isn’t it difficult to keep the idea you had when you started a painting until you finish it, while time is moving forward and many things are changing?

Maybe I feel that way because I myself am working to carve the vibes of the day into the stage of that day.

Ida: I believe that our initial thoughts and feelings change. As I draw, I myself change, and I always think that the present me is the best, so if that “present” is not used in the work, there is no point in drawing it.

Ukon: Where do you make the decision to say, “Well, that’s it”.

Ida: The painting says, “Don’t paint anymore”.

Ukon: Oh, my!

Ida: I often refer to it as the “mass” of a painting. When a certain amount of information or emotion is loaded onto a painting and it reaches its mass, something that has never existed in the world before comes to me with a thump and a bang as a solid presence. At that moment, the brush stops. I can’t put my hand in anymore. It’s weird to say this, because it sounds like I’m praising myself, but there’s a sense of awe that comes over me when that happens.

Artist Yukimasa Ida's paint palette showing many lumps of multicolored paint.

Ida’s paint palette.

Ukon: Recently, I have been feeling that “good/bad” depends on whether or not I am into it. Of course, objectivity is important, and I think it is also important to become better at expressing oneself through experience, but I like myself better when I am absorbed in my work, no matter if it is bad or not.

Ida: I think the balance between the two is an eternal issue for expressive people. As one becomes more proficient, something is inevitably lost. Still, I believe that a true professional must be absolutely skillful. When I look at Katsushika Hokusai’s prints, he is technically very good, but I wonder how much he devoted himself to his work. I think it is amazing how crazy and immersed he was in his work when he drew it.

Ukon: By the way, in the area where the large wood carvings were placed, I saw a painting based on an actor’s picture by Sharaku.

Ida: I painted it as a bit of an experiment. I tried printmaking to broaden my horizons, and just recently I became interested in ukiyoe and other classical Japanese works. Three-dimensional wood carving is also something I started doing as an extension of printmaking.

Ukon: You are always stimulating yourself by trying many new things.

The three-year-commissioned painting stands in Ida’s studio.

Ida: I would like to cherish the ability to be amused at any time. We are planning to build a studio overseas, and that is also from this feeling. Ah, I recently joined Chicago-based Marian Ibrahim. I was a bit repulsed by the idea of belonging to a gallery, so I set up my own company, but I have come to think that other forces are important as well.

I thought that by being exposed to the opinions and values of people other than myself, I would come to a different realization, which would lead to a reinterpretation of my own. I have grown up a bit and am finally willing to listen to other people’s opinions. It was at this point in my life that I was able to have an intense conversation with you, and I had a lot of fun today.

Ukon: Thank you very much for a pleasant time. My great-grandfather, Onoe Kikugoro VI, was friends with Yokoyama Taikan. Taikan said to him, “I envy you. Even if you make a mistake on stage, only the audience that day will see it, right? In my case, even a painting I thought was bad could be liked and displayed for a long time. It’s tough to stay in shape”. Then Onoe Kikugoro VI replied, “No, it may be handed down, but no matter how good my play is, only the audience of that day will be able to see it.

I envy painters whose good works will last forever.” There is an episode in which they said to each other, “We are both in a causal business”.

Ida: Lovely story.

Ukon: I would love to have that kind of talk with you, at the end of my life!

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