‘So bad it’s good’: the graphic Japanese art of heta-uma
Heta-uma was never an organised crime, but it had the cultural impact of one. It coalesced in the 1970s and reigned throughout the 80s and 90s, before discreetly diffusing amongst the fans and practitioners of today. Though centred in illustration and comics, it has widely impacted the arts, especially painting – but also music, sculpture, and performance.
Heta-uma literally translates as ‘bad-good,’ though the English ‘bad-nice’ was sometimes preferred in period Japanese publications. ‘Awful but amazing’ may give a better idea of what it’s really about. It refers generally to things that look like they were dashed off or slapped together, but which actually took sensibility, and perhaps even real craft and care to produce.
It could be described as a form of ‘primitivism’, but in many cases the simplicity and crudeness of heta-uma is not feigned. Sometimes it refers to simple, minimalist, child-like forms that exude character and feeling despite looking insubstantial and trifling.
More often than not, it becomes artistic garbage that excels in its ability to repulse. Hence the frequent gloss of it as something that’s ‘so bad that it’s good’ and a list of common characteristics that include: non-sense narratives, exaggerated slap-stick, crass jokes, open indulgence in things enjoyed by young men (eating, drinking, gambling, and sex), an adolescent obsession with faeces, vomit, and other bodily ejecta, and an anarchic assault on mainstream family values and white-collar workaholism.
Depending on the artist, heta-uma can be post-Pop or proto-punk. Stereotypes notwithstanding, it is also incredibly diverse – stylistically, thematically, and politically. Its origins in Japan are usually dated to the early 1970s and the emergence of illustrator Yumura Teruhiko, who also went by the pen-names Terry Johnson and King Terry, among others.
Following in the footsteps of Pop designers like Push Pin Studios and Yokoo Tadanori, Yumura was interested in retro and sometimes nostalgic forms of Japanese and American mass culture, although he broke with Pop’s usual hard-edge and mechanical look for a hand-drawn style that was closer to the refined doodles of illustrator Wada Makoto.
Drawing for a variety of chic magazines, but most famously the Tokyo town guide Shinjuku Play Map between 1969 and 1971, Yumura offered a simple, artfully artless version of the standard pop iconography of consumer goods, youth fashion, rock ‘n roll, Mickey Mouse, and the ‘American dream / life’ – rendered in a way that emphasised the scratchily handmade, personably human, and compositionally freeform. Hollywood and California beach and car culture were his initial iconographic reference points, then disco and R&B, and from there hip-hop music and album design.
If any single institution is most identified with heta-uma, and was most responsible for its spread, it is the legendary alt-manga magazine Garo. Founded in 1964 as a venue for comics that challenged the political and economic norms of mainstream manga publishing, around 1970 Garo began featuring artists such as Abe Shinichi and Suzuki Ōji who drew confessional, quasi-autobiographical, and sometimes dreamlike stories in an open, expressionistic, and naïve style. They, like the Garo pioneers Tsuge Yoshiharu and Hayashi Seiichi who were their main influences, are often seen as quasi-heta-uma, with the ’quasi’ being due to their distance from Pop sensibilities, their obviously elevated technical skills, or both at once.
Then, in 1973, the cartoonist Ebisu Yoshikazu arrived. His angsty, hilarious, and dreamlike takes on the grind of school, romance, family, and working life marked the arrival of a true heta-uma spirit in comics. In 1976, Yumura commenced his first manga, Penguin Rice, for Garo. He drew the magazine’s covers for the entirety of 1977, returning in 1982 and remaining its ‘ugly but charismatic’ face until 1987.
Yoshikazu also designed the cover for Ebisu’s first book, Teachers Damned to the Pits of Hell which quickly became a bestseller. Other heta-uma artists who arose from Garo’s and its successor Ax’s pages include Nemoto Takashi, Shiriagari Kotobuki, Suzy Amakane, Moto Hideyasu, and Hanakuma Yūsaku. Heta-uma is predominantly a male world, but it also has its female adherents, including the riot grrrl-esque Yamada Hanako and junk action cartoonist Gotō Yuka.
Even if it was not consciously organised – issuing no manifestoes per se, heta-uma was as influential as any well-oiled movement. After rising in illustration and comics, it spread into fashion, copywriting, prose, painting, sculpture, and many other practices within mass culture, subculture, and contemporary art. By the mid 1980s, it was a buzzword on the level of ‘punk’ and ‘new wave.’
Its artists have designed so many album covers for such a wide variety of musicians and bands that it’s hard to visualise independent music in Japan outside of this look. Tanaami Keiichi has also drawn lots of album covers, starting with San Francisco prog rock bands in the 1960s, but he only kind of counts as heta-uma in his later years when his compositions were looser and he turned to pastiche.
In recent years, heta-uma has been elevated to a descriptor for a wide variety of comically de-skilled and unintentionally charming but poorly created works of visual art dating back to the 17th century. Zen painters have retrospectively become proto heta-uma, although some people prefer the less chronologically-bound term ‘soboku-e’ (naïve pictures). Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-51), the third Tokugawa shogun, may have been a notoriously strict and brutal ruler but you wouldn’t know it from his poorly but cutely executed ink paintings of cute owls and rabbits, which, likewise, have become retroactively heta-uma.
Within contemporary art, the global success of Murakami Takashi’s Superflat in the late 1990s and early 2000s lodged anime and the polished amateurs of otaku culture as the cultural wellsprings of note from the 1970s and 1980s. But it is impossible to understand equally important artists like Ohtake Shinrō and Aida Makoto, and by extension guerilla performance groups like Chim-Pom, without acknowledging Garo and the ‘bad taste’ of heta-uma. You can also see its influence in the neo-modernist work of painter and illustrator Hayakawa Motohiro and avant-garde manga artist Yokoyama Yūichi. As long as art is created by humans, there will be variants of heta-uma.