Kaba and the Commercial Art of Katsuhiro Otomo

When you think of Katsuhiro Otomo, AKIRA is usually the first thing that comes to mind. The impact it has had on pop culture around the world needs no introduction, but unfortunately for those in the US, AKIRA is the totality of Otomo’s legacy. Only a fraction of his other manga titles, (such as Domu and The Legend of Mother Sarah), have been released in English and none of these are still in print. Little of his work prior to AKIRA has been officially translated into English. That’s what makes the art book Kaba so valuable and interesting, as it shows the side of Otomo that’s gone unseen in the west but that laid the groundwork for AKIRA.

Originally published in 1989, Kaba (titled such on a whim after Otomo watched a nature program about hippos in Kenya) [‘kaba’ is Japanese for hippopotamus – Ed.] covers the most prolific period of his career: 1971 to 1989. The book was roughly the same dimensions of a record sleeve, giving plenty of room for the art to shine. It was also bilingual (Japanese and English) with informative captions and background info. Content included manga like Sayonara Nippon (1978) and anime such as Harmagedon (1983), but also featured his extensive commercial work outside the realm of comics and animation. Otomo had his hand in novels, albums covers, and adverts for whiskey and electrical safety commissions. Otomo balanced a fine line between craftsman and artist even when doing an ad for vodka that invoked Taoist and Chinese Zodiac imagery or an ad for Canon cameras modeled after Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. Ad execs in the bubble era were into some wild stuff.

One of the most fascinating sections is the illustrations Otomo did for the talk show, YOU. The program ran on NHK in the ’80s as a late night talk show and featured Japanese teens discussing current affairs and important issues(it also had a theme song composed by Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto and was hosted by Garo contributor and Mother/Earthbound developer Shigesato Itoi – how cool is that?). Otomo’s artwork was featured in the opening and the eye catches which consisted of stills depicting gleeful people dropping and destroying keyboards, TVs, and cat statues. The pictures are intrinsically simple, but Otomo gave careful craft and detail to the characters, their clothes, and the destruction of the objects. The balance of destruction with cheery expressions and bright colors embodied Otomo’s entwinement of structure and chaos.  

Kaba also included two pre-AKIRA short stories that originally appeared in Young Magazine; Farewell To Weapons (1981) and The Watermelon Messiah (1981). Both versions of Farewell to Weapons are included, the English-language version as published by Epic Comics with colors by Steve Oliff and the original Japanese version in black and white with accompanying photos of model kits that appeared in B-Club Magazine. Some panels in the comic intended to be from the perspective of an enemy tank’s HUD feature a video effect and while we don’t know exactly how he did it with Farewell, according to AKIRA Club, Otomo achieved a similar effect for an advertisement by videotaping art and then fiddling with the color balance on a TV.

Kaba is not exactly cheap, retailing today for about $100, but it’s one of the best collections of Otomo’s art and a great distillation of 1980s Japanese style. Every one of Otomo’s illustrations is a world unto itself.  In the introduction to Kaba, Otomo mentions taking long train rides to see movies but discovering that watching the other passengers was more interesting than any film, as he imagined what those people’s lives were like. This embodies the appeal of Otomo’s art – as outlandish as a scene might be, it’s still rooted in the familiar and mundane. Much like the cover, a hippo standing in an underwater living room, Otomo brings the viewer into a place that is familiar but that is also totally of his own design.

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