The Kafkaesque Paintings of Tetsuya Ishida

I’m enamored with a set of paintings by Japanese artist Tetsuya Ishida that has floated around the internet lately. (See iterations here, here, and here). Ishida’s paintings depict young, sad Japanese people who have transformed into (or always were?) banal objects or insect-like animals. Ishida’s figures are often constrained into claustrophobic spaces, with pained expressions evincing despair and anxiety. There’s a paradoxical loneliness in his works as well: his protagonists are often surrounded by others who have also metamorphosed into machine-like beings, automatons performing sinister operations on the protagonists.

Ishida’s themes of the salaryman’s despair at the strictures of a modernized, hyper-industrialized society where conformity is prized are distinctly Japanese, but they also resonate beyond that culture. They are Kafkaesque, tapping into the alienation that the individual faces in an increasingly absurd, bureaucratic, mechanized world that turns people into cogs, bugs, things. Ishida was killed when he was hit by a train in 2005–his death was likely a suicide.

In both subject and stylistic execution, Ishida’s work is reminiscent of American artist George Tooker‘s paintings of the alienation and anxieties produced by urban bureaucracy.

Government Bureau -- George Tooker (1956)

9 thoughts on “The Kafkaesque Paintings of Tetsuya Ishida”

  1. First, unless you’re talking about the Harlem Renaissance writer (which would make no sense), the name is George Tooker, not “Toomer.” Second, art is not a competition. Ishida can express despair at the homogeneity of modern culture with images of claustrophobia and human repetition without being dismissed as a Tooker clone. Ishida had his own style and, as his death shows, his own pain.

    Viewing the arts as a series of competitions is depressingly shallow. J.S. Bach could have been dismissed as Buxtehude’s imitator, too. In fact, he *was* dismissed for almost a century — people used his manuscripts to wrap fish. Imagine what we’d lose if we viewed him that way now.


  2. Thirdly, Tooker’s paintings were not surreal in the literal sense and Ishida’s are decidedly surreal (in the sense of depicting scenes that could never exist in the real world and are neither described in classic religious texts nor transposed from from classical mythology). Tooker repeated the same face endlessly in certain famous paintings, but even Renaissance painters did things like that. Tooker didn’t graft the limbs of crustacheans to men in suits or human heads to microscopes, he depicted tortured-looking people in train stations, cubicles and waiting rooms. Ishida’s images are more contemporary than Tooker’s and their horror at urban life is decidedly more Japanese.

    Not to take anything away from Tooker, however, who’s a great artist and has been one of my favorites since I was little.


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