Portrait of an Artist: Yusuke Nakamura

By Alana Domingo

Let’s explore the colorful worlds of Yusuke Nakamura, one of Japan’s most popular modern illustrators!

On a sunny day in late September, visitors to MICA’s Rosenberg Gallery lined up to meet one of Japan’s most popular contemporary illustrators, Yusuke Nakamura. To celebrate his debut art exhibition in the United States, Nakamura held a special lecture on artistic inspiration for aspiring creatives and fans alike. The event was part of this year’s Baltimore Japan Art Festival, hosted in part by Nippon Motion.

Over his 15 years as a professional illustrator, Yusuke Nakamura (中村佑介 Nakamura Yusūke) has worked on dozens of projects, creating pictures for book covers, postcards, calendars, and even candy packaging. Outside of Japan, he’s best known as the artist behind J-rock group Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s iconic album covers, and as a character designer for The Tatami Galaxy and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl.

Cover art for two Asian Kung-fu Generation albums designed by Yusuke Nakamura
Cover art for two Asian Kung-Fu Generation albums

Before the lecture began, visitors were encouraged to explore the gallery space. A sampling of Nakamura’s illustrations hung about, all showcasing his signature touches of vibrant colors, clean lines, and playful imagery. But as Nakamura would explain in his talk, his work wasn’t always so whimsical.

Developing His Style

During his first years at Osaka University of Arts, Yusuke Nakamura struggled to form his own artistic identity. His early pieces were simplistic in terms of color and composition and usually featured young Japanese women, a nod to his main influences, Yumeji Takehisa and Seiichi Hayashi. Both artists specialized in creating bijin-ga (美人画), or pictures of beautiful women.

Three images of women drawn by Yumeji Takehisa, Yusuke Nakamura, and Seiichi Hayashi
From left to right: “Beauty” by Yumeji Takehisa, “Scarf” by Yusuke Nakamura, “Private Time – Waiting” by Seiichi Hayashi

However, like any other trend, traditional bijin-ga had long gone out of style by Nakamura’s college enrollment. His plain girls and black-and-white palette were a far cry from what was popular among his peers. At the suggestion of his classmates, he decided to look elsewhere for inspiration.

In time, he came across the work of Norman Rockwell, the famous American painter. When he studied Rockwell’s pictures, Nakamura realized each one told a hidden story that couldn’t be seen in just a quick glance. Small details that seemed unimportant at first hinted at something bigger going on behind the scenes.

Nakamura was absolutely blown away. As a design student, he always thought strictly following the elements and principles of design were what made pictures great. But Rockwell’s work wasn’t powerful because of its technical achievements, but because of its striking approach to visual storytelling.

A comparison of two art pieces by Norman Rockwell and Yusuke Nakamura.
From left to right: “The Art Critic” by Norman Rockwell, a cover illustration by Yusuke Nakamura

Nakamura’s art went through a dramatic shift soon after. Taking cues from Rockwell, he brought new personality to his illustrations, pulling his subjects out of their static scenes and into more dynamic situations.

Gone too were the monochromatic color schemes, gradually replaced by bolder hues meant to evoke emotion. As Nakamura explained in his lecture, he’s a true believer in color psychology. Smart designers know how color choice influences both the feel of a picture and the person viewing it. By taking the time to study color theory, Nakamura added another emotional dimension to his artwork.

Other thematic elements quickly worked their way to become Nakamura’s hallmarks. His collaged use of organic and geometric shapes, particularly motifs taken from Japanese culture, can be found throughout his illustrations. Symbolism plays a part as well. Nakamura is fond of using animals to represent abstract ideas of people, places, or other things.

A Colorful Career

By the time Yusuke Nakamura finished college in 2000, he already had some commercial illustration work under his belt, mostly projects for student clubs and local events. His big break came in 2002 when up-and-coming musical groups Gentouki and Asian Kung-Fu Generation both tapped him to design album artwork for their CDs. Nakamura still collaborates with both bands to this day.

After his debut, things really got rolling. From 2005 to 2012, Nakamura worked as art director for Shogakukan’s Qui! La! La! literary magazine. His original character Kirara-chan, a charming idol-like girl, graced many of the publication’s covers during his tenure.

Cover Illustrations for the novels “The Tatami Galaxy” and “The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl” designed by Yusuke Nakamura.
Cover illustrations for the novels “The Tatami Galaxy” and “The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl”

In 2010, anime film director Masaaki Yuasa approached Nakamura to design the lead characters for his upcoming series, The Tatami Galaxy. Inspired by Nakamura’s illustrations for the original Tomihiko Morimi novel, Yuasa felt the artist’s retro-cool style paired nicely with his own aesthetic vision for the show. The duo would later work together again for Yuasa’s feature film, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl.

In between his larger projects, Yusuke Nakamura has worked on many other creative assignments. He’s illustrated textbooks for Japanese high school programs, designed packaging for sweets, including Lotte Choco Pies, and most recently partnered with Turner Color Works to produce a new line of acrylic gouache paints.

“Modern Japonism”

No matter the commission or client, Yusuke Nakamura makes sure his work stays true to his artistic vision. He currently dubs his style as “modern Japonism” — nostalgic imagery executed with a forward-thinking approach. His work is all about finding the balance between the new and the old. That’s why, among bright colors and intricate linework, you’ll almost always find elegant girls as his subjects, a throwback to his bijin-ga days.

Yusuke Nakamura's promotional poster design for J-Pop Summit 2015.
Poster design for J-Pop Summit 2015

As his lecture concluded, Yusuke Nakamura left the audience with a word of thanks and a final wish. Though this was his first gallery show outside of Japan, he doesn’t want it to be his last. He hopes that through his art, people all over the world will see a new side to modern Japanese culture.

To learn more about Yusuke Nakamura, you can visit his official website or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Alana Domingo

For nearly fourteen years, Alana has been an avid fan of Japanese visual culture, stemming from the days she watched Cyborg 009 after school. Now, she’s committed to teaching others all about manga and its impact on society, both domestic and abroad. If she’s not tracking down the latest retro manga releases, she’s probably chilling with her three pet frogs.

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