Nothing quite defines the desires of the modern man as succinctly as the curve.
In the haunches of a race car, it alludes to held energy and dynamism; and yet it also delineates those moments in a lover’s presence where sexual desire collects in the dips and swells of a woman’s body.
A legend in Japanese erotic illustration circles, Sorayama, 70, has something of a stranglehold on the niche of fembot art, having spent close to four decades honing his technique of perverse superrealism. Born in 1947 in the southern Japanese shipbuilding city of Imabari, Sorayama’s unusually fervent sex drive emerged at a young age, spurred by the mid-century American import of the pinup girl within the pages of Playboy and Penthouse. Graduating from Chuo Art School in 1968, Sorayama began his career as a graphic designer at an advertising agency before striking out as a freelance illustrator four years later. It wasn’t until 1978 that he painted his first robot – a pastiche of Star Wars’s C-3PO modified just enough to avoid any copyright issues. His watershed moment came in 1983 with the publication of Sexy Robot, a collection of his gynoid art that solidified his reputation worldwide in this niche. Since then, the likes of Nike and Disney, Stussy, and XLARGE have come knocking on Sorayama’s door for his deft interplay of technical mastery and constant dalliances with taboo. His collaboration with Sony in 1999 produced the iconic AIBO pet robot dog, which has since been enshrined in the permanent collections of the MoMA and the Smithsonian Institution.
Upon meeting Sorayama for the first time, one is immediately struck, past his amber-tinted glasses, by the glint in his eye – that of a wily mad scientist who has chosen to forgo the scalpel to lovingly piece together his unholy creations with an airbrush. He inhabits a studio space in Tokyo’s Gotanda district where, in another lifetime, he lived with his family and raised his two kids. Today, every spare inch of surface area has been covered in successive layers of curios and drawing instruments, much like the way sediment accumulates on the ocean floor over millennia. The studio walls heave with bookshelves threatening to burst at the seams, while loose sketches hang haphazardly from a clothing line. Pointing to faded photos wedged into the frame of a painting propped against his fridge, Sorayama says, “All my friends in those photos have passed away. Every time I pass by, I say hi to them.” Then, remembering his manners, he tells us to help ourselves to a drink from his fridge before launching into a discussion about skirting what’s socially acceptable, and the unabashed hedonism of his work.
"There's a lot of taboos when being creative, so it's about finding ways to incorporate these taboo themes within these social confines of ours."You don’t have a computer at home right?
No I don’t. I think you can only get some surface information from there. I think for the real core themes and information, it’s best to get it from fanatics. For example, I draw a lot of airplanes and for more information I get it directly from aviation heads. Sometimes it’s too much information though. Once I was even sent information that was actually confidential. Things are more interesting that way. I like including things even industry people would be surprised about. That way they also think my other works are that crazy (laughs). There’s a lot of taboos when being creative, so it’s about finding ways to incorporate these taboo themes within these social confines of ours. The people who can’t find a way to do this often end up going to jail or being sent to a mental hospital. It’s about finding out the boundary of when you get thrown into jail or sent to the hospital. You can kind of see when a person did too much. The “pioneers” are usually the ones who face the consequences, so I try to be a little behind them.That’s deep.
That’s not deep. Around the world it’s different as to how far you can go, and where the limit is. That’s important to know. There’s no real average across the board.
So do you calculate the balance by yourself?
Sometimes I get it wrong, but overall I’m okay.
What happens if you get it wrong?
You get ganged up on. I’ve never experienced it, but just before crossing the limit I change it up and go the other way around when I work, and as a person in general. Even those writing about me, the best interviewers are always thinking about how to piss off the interviewee.
Overseas, there’s a big pool of people to interview so you can just move onto the next. Here it’s tough because if you piss somebody off, word gets around.
What inspires most of your work?
All things in nature. Everything that happens in my life. When I take the time to do my drawings, my brain starts wandering by itself. I can’t really distance myself from the style of drawings that I do right now. Sometimes people ask me how I change my pace, but in truth I can’t do it. The drawings that I’m working on now, it doesn’t matter if I’m taking a shit, in an onsen, or eating dinner with a girl. I’ll always have that feeling. In order to change it, I need to change the actual thing that I’m drawing. Maybe when I’m sleeping my brain is a little more free, but otherwise it’s in the same mode.
The fact that you can continue that level of drawing must require a lot of mental strength.
I don’t think so because it’s something that I like to do. If you’re doing something you love, why would it be tough? It’s not practice or anything. I’ve never even put any effort into drawing. I just enjoy what I do. If there’s something that I can’t draw at first, the pleasure that I get in completing it is like a drug. If you don’t feel like that you shouldn’t even do it in the first place. The people who feel like they’re doing work, and are putting a lot of effort and training, they should probably stop right there. You don’t like doing hard things, right? I don’t either, that’s why I don’t do anything that’s tough. You can’t do something tough constantly. I was even told by a dentist to stop using an electric toothbrush because it was tough. It made me feel sick. So he said if it was too tiring, just stop it right there. Of course there are times when I feel troubled and there isn’t an immediate solution.
I only draw, I don’t make sculptures. There are people that I know who are good at making sculptures so I let them do it. If you spend money, you can use people. Not only money, but if there is a win-win situation you can use them as well. There has to be merit for the other person as well, otherwise they won’t put in their full effort.
You have probably been able to accomplish these things because you’re brutally honest and direct.
I think you have to be honest and also encouraging towards your family, even your cats and dogs, otherwise they aren’t energized and will have no motivation. Most people don’t do that, even the [journalists] who come to cover me for a magazine. They always ask me the same things, so for me I feel like that won’t even become a good article. I don’t understand why people aren’t more direct. Isn’t that weird? If you choose between health or sickness, it’s health, right? If it’s between beauty and ugliness, it’s beauty, right? If it’s rich and poor, it’s rich, right? People who can’t admit those things openly have a weird philosophy and start saying twisted things. I just don’t get it.
At this point, Sorayama stands up and walks over to a dish containing an assortment of gold and silver nuggets. They are, he explains, his metal-plated feces. Our photographer snaps some photos on his film camera.
I’m trying to portray women through this medium. Do you know the difference between humanoids and androids? Humanoids are made of flesh while androids are metal. I try to portray some female aspects using this metal even though it’s not real. For example with a perfume, your memory will remind you of a woman in a nice way. Also, smelling her cooking may remind you of home. In this way, you might already begin to like a women just off of these things. This filter of your personal experience that stands between reality and your imagination allows for a lot of interpretation. In the same way, I think people can experience feelings of eros and ponder the value of life while looking at my pieces.
What is your ultimate dream?
I can’t say. I really like tropical plants so I want to turn the island of Madagascar into a botanical garden. Get rid of all the people there first. I can’t say these kinds of things in public.
This story was originally published in HYPEBEAST Magazine Issue 18: The Sensory Issue as "Ne Plus Ultra."