Kazami Suzuki is a Japanese illustrator who is based in Tokyo. Determined to pursue art from a young age, she decided to study Graphic Design at the Tama Art University in Tokyo, specialising in Illustration, where she became immersed in a unique music community. She has become well-known through her frequent collaborations with musicians, based not only in Japan but also internationally, with her portfolio including the likes of Meishi Smile, Ryan Hemsworth and, above all, the Japanese musician Tomggg who she has been working with for more than two years. Kazami, who has never been interviewed before, describes the path her career has taken, sharing her extremely personal thoughts on and reasoning behind her practice which explain, for example, her very distinctive female characters. Newly graduated, Kazami now works at an art studio, a new lifestyle which she expects to change the way she works, and which she at once fears and welcomes.
Kazami, could you start by explaining what you do today?
I used to be a student, but at the moment I’m working for an art studio. My personal work focuses on illustration and designing posters and flyers. 1 I have received a lot of attention from musicians, and also artists who use the internet as a platform to showcase their art. 2 I also get work from overseas, because I upload my designs online.
When did your interest in drawing emerge?
I’ve been passionate about art ever since I was at primary school, and from then on I had always wanted to become an illustrator. My style was totally different to what it is now, but it was at that time that I decided to study art. At high school I studied drawing and I took university entrance exams, upon which I was accepted into Tama Art University in Tokyo. 3 I don’t think to myself “this is the reason I came to like art!”, I just always enjoyed making art, and I thought to myself that I wanted to do work related to that. My dad is a cameraman, so he understood my desire to work in a creative field, and we had many conversations about it, so I think I was influenced by that too.
What did you study at university and how did it influence your practice as an illustrator?
I studied graphic design, but I didn’t just study graphic design-related things. I specialised in an illustration course, so illustration became my main study, but it was a place where I could also learn about the fundamentals of other related disciplines. 4 The pictures that I am drawing now started when I entered art school, and my style gradually became more and more concrete from then on.
Also, it’s not directly connected to art, but at university I was part of the Techno Society. 5 Up until then, I didn’t know much about the culture surrounding music like DJ and VJ, 6 or about net label culture, but at the time that society seemed interesting so I became a member without a second thought. It was there that I learnt about lots of different music. I’ve always liked listening to music, but I wasn’t at all knowledgeable about club culture. For example, if I hadn’t have been part of the Techno Society, I would never have gone to clubs as much as I do today, and nor would I have got to know Tomggg’s 7 circle of acquaintances.
Illustrations and Collaborations
When did you start freelancing?
The first time I was properly commissioned to do some work was in the second year of university. The first person who asked me was Meishi Smile. 8 He’d found my stuff on Tumblr 9 one year before, and said that we should collaborate in the future. At the same time, tomad, 10 the founder of the net label Maltine Records, 11 told me that he had checked out my Tumblr, and said that a musician was releasing some songs and was looking for a designer, so he introduced me to Tomggg. These two projects were released at the same time in December 2013, and from then on, thanks to the internet, more and more people started to wonder who it was creating these designs.
Why did you get involved with musicians in particular?
I knew about Maltine Records and ZOOM LENS, 12 and I listened to them, but after that it was just by pure chance. I never really had a point of contact or old acquaintances – it really was just a chance find on the internet.
You’ve been working with Tomggg for a while now. What is your relationship with him like?
Tomggg and I have been working together since Popteen 13 was released in the winter of 2013, so about two and a half years have gone by. 14 When we first worked together, I felt really lucky because it seemed so natural. Tomggg’s musicianship and my artistic style meshed perfectly, and I feel really thankful to have met him. I think it’s rare in pop that the music and the visual identity fit that well together. You can’t often easily recognise an artist without pressing play, but if you have an illustration, you can think straight away “oh that’s Tomggg’s music.”
Tomggg’s instructions were clear, and we were able to agree on the image together – it was easy to work with him, as we could both share what we were aiming to create, and what we imagined the end product to be.
Tomggg’s musicianship and my artistic style meshed perfectly, and I feel really thankful to have met him. I think it’s rare in pop that the music and the visual identity fit that well together.
It wouldn’t surprise me if many people today, looking at your illustrations, immediately think of Tomggg. Do you consider that a handicap or a strength for your future work?
Today, I have more opportunities to become friends with musicians apart from Tomggg, and although people do ask to collaborate and to work together, I have been told several times that it’s hard to work with me because my drawings are too linked with Tomggg’s image. But I keep on saying, “my aesthetic should change a bit anyway, so let’s collab!” as I believe in the sort of ‘chemical reaction’ that can happen when I work with someone else’s style.
In fact, when I was working with Meishi Smile, I did change my style a bit. 15 Meishi Smile’s musicality is different from Tomggg’s, and the image he brings is completely different, so even if the illustrations that I do for him are recognisably mine, they are still different. But it makes me happy that my illustrations give a strong image of Tomggg because it means that what we do works really well.
Together with Tomggg, you’ve worked with Takashi Ohashi several times. 16 How did this collaboration come about, and is the working process slightly different when dealing with animation?
I was introduced to Takashi Ohashi by Tomggg. We, as a three, started when Tomggg was doing a show, and Ohashi-san was doing the VJ and I was asked whether my drawings and illustrations could be used. From then, we collaborated a lot – for example, we did a CHANNEL event together.17 At the moment, when it comes to my working style, Ohashi-san uses my illustrations as raw material and makes them come to life. But even within that, it’s not just illustrations. For example, for animation work, I try to adapt my drawings to what Ohashi-san wants, and I try to explore the best way of working.
Kazami’s Artistic Practice
When are you the most satisfied when you draw?
I’m really happy when I manage to draw exactly what the other person is looking for. When I can understand what they want, and I can suggest good ways to realise that. For me, that’s the easiest way to go about things, and I feel like it ends up with good results.
Most of your illustrations, if not all, feature similar-looking characters. Is there a reason behind this?
The first thing to know about my drawings is that I used to draw because I used to like men who were lolicon. 18 In primary school, there’s often this trend amongst girls to dream of older boys. For example, in shōjo manga, 19 the love interest would always be older, like a kakkoii 20 teacher, or a cool older brother. That was basically what I liked. When the younger me, back in primary school, was infatuated with older men, I used to think that only lolicon men could fancy me back. Me liking lolicon people all started from there.
Since I grew up still fancying lolicon people, when I graduated from high school I was gutted thinking that they would not fancy me any more. I’m not loli 21 at all any more, and now I’m too old to have that kind of relationship, so I often drew young girls as a way of connecting with this world I aspired to be a part of.
Recently, it’s kind of been the opposite – I’ve started to really like the girls themselves! It’s not that there’s a specific real-life model to the characters I’m drawing, more that I am drawing them as an illustration of my ideal woman. I have strong opinions, like “these types of girls look great”, “I like these kinds of shapes” or “it’s fine having fat legs” (laugh). This gradually became part of my personal identity, and I started to pursue that ideal character by following these ideas.
Do you ever interact with children close to the age of your characters? If so, did it affect your thoughts on your illustrations?
During my third and fourth years of university, I was working part-time at an art school for kids. I was teaching drawing and clay pottery to children from kindergarten to middle-school-age. Talking to kids there might have been quite an inspiration to my drawings. I was already drawing girls before this job, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to interact with young kids apart from seeing my cousin at New Year’s. Actually talking to them and drawing with them at work made it harder to look at primary-age girls objectively, and use them as ‘icons’. Once you have a connection with them, it – maybe quite naturally – becomes harder to draw them half-naked. When I say “I really like young girls”, it’s kind of fine because I’m a woman, but it still feels dangerous.
When I think about it, that these young girls actually do exist, I start thinking that I really don’t want to contribute to harming them through my drawings, which are quite ‘borderline’. It’s not at all like I’m drawing young female characters because I want to hurt them. I actually believe that child pornography and sexual abuse can be reduced through illustrations. I believe drawings do fulfill that kind of function.
The experience led me to be more aware about it, even though I still did get inspired when I was, for example, looking at how primary school girls have such nice skin, and skinny arms and legs. laughs
The first thing to know about my drawings is that I used to draw because I used to like men who were lolicon. [...] I’m not loli at all any more, and now I’m too old to have that kind of relationship, so I often drew young girls as a way of connecting with this world I aspired to be a part of.
As you said earlier, you’ve worked with not only Japanese artists but also artists from overseas. Do you think the way that people perceive your illustrations differs from Japan to the West?
With regards to Japanese people, in Japan, there are so many people who could potentially draw similar stuff, so I feel like it’s more like they are deliberately choosing to look at my illustrations. My foreign viewers come from everywhere, but viewers from Japan tend to be mainly otakus 22 – a lot of them are in love with Japanese culture. 23 In the past, I’ve had comments on Instagram from people abroad saying “why is this girl not wearing any clothes?”, which just reminds me that I do get these kind of comments from abroad, from time to time. 24
It might be because I put a lot of my drawings online, but there’s weirdly quite a lot of foreigners who think that I’m a man. I don’t think it’s only because I keep drawing female characters, it might also be because I really want lolicon men to look at them, so my characters look like girls looked at from a male perspective.
You are well-known as an illustrator. However, flicking through your Tumblr, it’s pretty clear that you also work in typography, something that most tend to overlook. How did you initially get interested in it? Do you go through a different working process with typography, compared to illustration?
I used to take some typography classes at university, and I realised there how interesting letters could be, and I started to practice drawing them. I also used to have a class where we had to write letters in a beautiful way, a little bit like calligraphy, and that class helped me to discover the link between drawing and letters. Instead of considering letters as part of a certain font and taking a design-heavy approach, where each letter is designed one by one on Illustrator, quite mathematically, 25 my approach is very close to illustration. 26 To put it differently, that’s the only way I can do it. The computer does come into it eventually, to make sure everything is clean and pretty, but I just think “why not just draw letters too?” It’s like what I’ve done for Tomggg’s logo, 27 or for Takashi Ohashi’s “Nakaniwa”. 28 Even though I’ve never thought about making typography into a career, it’s something that comes together with my illustration work.
I actually believe that child pornography and sexual abuse can be reduced through illustrations. I believe drawings do fulfill that kind of function.
Is there anyone who particularly inspires your work?
The artist who has influenced me the most is Hideo Azuma. 29 He is considered to be one of the people who triggered the lolicon movement. 30 The manga he drew when he was an alcoholic is very interesting, and his other manga that he made when he was homeless, 31 called Disappearance Diary, also won several awards. 32 When I was in my first year of university, I was really into Naruyoshi Kikuchi 33 and he, just by chance, was quoted on the obi 34 of Kikuchi’s manga, so that’s why I bought it. I was so shocked, I thought it was so cool. I just really like the female characters he draws, like in my favourite one of his, Scrap Gakuen 35 – it’s said to be the manga that triggered the loose socks trend because the main female character wore them. 36
How do you get inspired when you’re working?
I don’t have anything like, “I get inspired when I go for a walk around there”. But I often work while listening to music. When I collaborate with musicians, I listen to their songs, of course, but when I’m working for myself, I draw while listening to all sorts of things. I think the influence I get from the music, like the images and messages it brings to me, can be quite powerful. Don’t you think that music can stir so many emotions? Not only sadness, but excitement and others things too. Drawing is a process which is easily influenced by the feeling I have in the moment, so when I work while listening to music, I think that its influence comes out naturally in my illustration.
It’s not been long since you graduated and started to work full-time. Do you think your new lifestyle will influence your work as an illustrator?
I’m sure it will, and I already know I won’t be drawing the same things as I have been doing so far, as changes in my lifestyle and environment will affect my practice. I’ve only been working for three months, and I don’t know how the situation will evolve, but I know that it will. I’m excited and worried at the same time!
I work from 8:30am up until at least 9pm. Generally, when it’s a long day, I finish at around midnight or 1am, so then I go home, take a bath, sleep and go to work again. 37 As I’m currently working as a part-timer there, I could easily take some time off if I wanted to, but I can’t really do so right now for financial reasons and that means that I don’t have much time to focus on my own work. I think I will just have to work very hard.
I worked on Art Nature 38 in-between my shifts at work – it was super tough *laugh*. If I want to draw, I technically can draw wherever I want – I did struggle with the lack of time though – but I really wanted to get some high-quality work done so I did my best!
What do you want to achieve in the future?
Something which has been in the back of my mind for a while recently is that I really want to make a manga! I’ve been thinking it for a long time and I have tried a few times so far, but they are very difficult to draw. I might have more momentum working on it if I had a proper deadline.
I have this vague admiration for mangaka as a job. It’s not a complex, but I do have some thoughts about it. Mangakas are really different to illustrators, their lifestyles are completely different. Maybe it’s a mix of admiration for what they do and knowing how tough it must be.
I don’t think I’d be able to make the kind of manga where I’d need to think each story through super deeply, one by one, going back and forth with the editor. If I were to do it, I think it would be closer to what I currently do as an illustrator 39 – a bit like a hobby!
Before we wrap up, could you tell us who you’d like to illustrate for in future?
I want to get involved with more musicians. To name a few, definitely Naruyoshi Kikuchi who I mentioned earlier on, or Kenji Ohtsuki 40 – people who’ve influenced me since I was a teenager. As for musicians outside of Japan, if I had the opportunity, bo en 41 or Kero Kero Bonito, 42 even though I actually already had the chance to design cover art for Sakura Rainbow, 43 for the song Sarah Bonito sings in. 44
- Kazami has designed a series of stickers for the Japanese messenger app, LINE. ↩
- Kazami has illustrated for many musicians, including Tomggg, Aiobahn, Slow Magic, Giraffage, Meishi Smile and Ryan Hemsworth. ↩
- The Tama Art University, often abbreviated to Tamabi, is a private art university located in West Tokyo. Considered one of the top art schools in Japan, notable graduates include fashion designer Issey Miyake, and graphic designer Takushi Mizuno. ↩
- Tamabi’s Department of Graphic Design, located in the Hachioji campus (pictured below), offers three streams: Advertising, Communication and Expression. Kazami most probably followed the latter stream, focussing on illustration and animation. ↩
- More literally translated as “Techno Study Group”, Kazami is referring to a student society at the Tama Art University. According to their Twitter account, their activities revolve around “studying and creating club culture through performance, design, DJing and VJing”. ↩
- VJ, which stands for Video Jockey, is a form of visual performance in real time. VJing often takes place at concerts, clubs and music festivals, sometimes in combination with other kinds of performance art. Below is a short video showcasing a series of particularly spectacular VJ performances: ↩
- Tomggg is a Tokyo-based musician who has been very active in online music communities, often releasing with the online compilation series FOGPAK and net label Maltine Records. A graduate of the Kunitachi College of Music with a Masters specialising in composition, his academic background is clear in his unique, complex tracks, meticulously put together. He has collaborated with musicians from outside Japan, remixing Mark Redito’s “Truly” as well as making “Cream Soda” with Ryan Hemsworth: ↩
- Meishi Smile is a Los Angeles-based musician. Half-Japanese and half-Chinese, his work is heavily influenced by East Asian culture. On top of his solo music project, he also runs the net label ZOOM LENS. You can listen to his latest song, released in June 2016, here: ↩
- Kazami’s current Tumblr is available here, though she seems to have had another one – viewable here – including some of her older work. ↩
- tomad is the co-founder and owner of Japanese net label Maltine Records. For more information about Maltine Records, see the next footnote. ↩
- Maltine Records is a Japanese net label co-founded and currently run by tomad. If you would like to find out more about Maltine Records, do watch the following mini-documentary: ↩
- ZOOM LENS is a net label founded and run by Meishi Smile. ↩
- Popteen is Tomggg’s first EP, released on Maltine Records in late 2013. It’s made up of three tracks: “Popteen” (listen below), “SO-EN” and “ViVi”. ↩
- Kazami added as a side note: “I was actually with him earlier today! We went around the CD shops that stock his work. I was next to him, watching while he was signing some CDs but people sometimes asked me to draw too!” ↩
- Here is an example of a poster that Kazami designed for Meishi Smile: You can see how this character is slightly different in style, compared to the ones she usually draws for Tomggg: ↩
- Takashi Ohashi is a Japanese motion designer who has been working very closely with Tomggg. Take a look at his showreel, dating from 2014: ↩
- CHANNEL is a series of events organised by the label BRDG, focusing on audio-visual performances. For each event, they invite several pairs of musicians and visual designers to showcase their work. Kazami Suzuki was involved in the ninth (watch below, Kazami’s illustrations appear from 1’55’’ onwards), tenth and twelfth CHANNEL events. ↩
- Lolicon stands for "Lolita complex" and describes an attraction to young or prepubescent girls. Lolicon is frequently seen in some manga and anime which feature romantic or erotic interactions between, typically, an adult man and a young girl. The lolicon movement boomed in Japan in the eighties, during which period there were even some magazines publishing exclusively lolicon manga (e.g. Manga Burikko, pictured below). While these are only ‘virtual’ images, it is worth noting that Japan was the last country in the OECD to outlaw possession of real images of child sexual abuse in June 2014. ↩
- Shōjo manga refers to manga aimed at a teenage female readership, where shōjo means “young woman”, though they are also widely read by adult women and men. Often illustrated by female mangakas, some magazines specialise in female manga, such as Ciao, a shōjo manga magazine for girls aged 9-15. ↩
- Kakkoii, Japanese for “cool-looking” or “handsome”, can pretty much be summed up as the masculine equivalent of kawaii. ↩
- While lolicon refers to the “Lolita complex”, loli stands for “lolita”, in other words, a sexually precocious young girl. ↩
- Otaku is a Japanese word for people with obsessive interests. While most commonly associated with anime and manga superfans, the term can be applied to any kind of enthusiast, from smartphone to transport otaku. The picture below is a stereotypical representation. ↩
- Speaking of being in love with Japanese culture, there is actually a governmental initiative called Cool Japan (see the official logo below) seeking to exploit the commercial capital of the country's culture industry, profiting from a Western admiration of Japanese music, fashion and art. At home, too, Japanese authorities are trying to make the most of the country’s unique culture. A great example is the following video made by AC-bu, published by the Japanese government in May 2016 to publicise a new law lowering the voting age from twenty to eighteen. ↩
- While Kazami’s online portfolio doesn’t actually show any naked characters, the image below comes close: ↩
- For those interested, here are some software packages for font-building: RoboFont, Fontlab, and Glyphs. ↩
- Kazami also told us: “if logos were made in this way, through thinking and drawing, I don’t think there would be as many controversies around them.” Kazami is referring to the plagiarism allegations against graphic designer Kenjiro Sano for his design for the 2020 Japanese Olympics logo (pictured below), later scrapped. The logo, as you can see, was criticised for its strong resemblance to the logo of a certain Belgian theatre. ↩
- See Kazami’s typography for Tomggg below: ↩
- Kazami contributed her illustration and typographic skills in designing the title of Takashi Ohashi’s “Nakaniwa”, a work created for BRDG. Watch below Takashi Ohashi’s “Nakaniwa”: ↩
- Hideo Azuma is a Japanese manga artist. His success peaked in the late seventies with his manga Fujōri Nikki (pictured below), but a decade later, he became an alcoholic, stressed from his hectic schedule. He disappeared twice for long periods, attempted suicide at least once, and was forcibly committed to an alcohol rehabilitation program. ↩
- Lolicon (see the eighteenth note for more on lolicon) boomed in the eighties. Along with Aki Uchiyama, another manga artist, Hideo Azuma is remembered as a pioneer of the movement, mainly for his contributions to Shibe-ru (pictured below), a lolicon manga magazine. More recently, we quite like this 18+ manga magazine called COMIC LO, launched in 2002, for their high-quality cover art: ↩
- Homelessness in Japan is said to have increased in the past decade due to rising unemployment. However, the number of homeless people in Tokyo has reached a record low at only about 1700 people, or one in every 10,000 inhabitants, although these numbers actually overlook another reality: ‘internet cafe refugees’, a class of homeless people who sleep in 24-hour internet cafés or manga cafés. This phenomenon is unique to Japan because although such cafés (pictured below) originally provided only internet services, some have expanded to offer food, drink, and showers to customers. A Japanese government study estimated that over 5400 people are spending at least half of their week in internet cafes. ↩
- Disappearance Diary depicts Azuma’s life from 1990 to 2000, during which time his life was dogged by his alcoholism, disappearances and at least one suicide attempt. Published in 2005, this work was well-received, winning prestigious awards including the Japan Cartoonists Association Award, the Manga Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival as well as the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. ↩
- Naruyoshi Kikuchi is a Japanese jazz musician and part of the groups dCprG and SPANK HAPPY, which Kazami really likes. You can listen to “Crazy He Calls Me”, a single from his fourth solo album, Elizabeth Taylor en Amérique du Sud: ↩
- An obi is a strip of paper looped around a book, as pictured below. Most books in Japan come with an obi, normally added on the outside of the dust jacket. ↩
- Scrap Gakuen is a manga drawn by Hideo Azuma. Three volumes were published between 1991 and 1993. See the second volume’s cover below: ↩
- In Japan, wearing loose and baggy socks was extremely trendy in the 1990s amongst high-school-age girls, who wore them with short skirts to accent their legs. The trend peaked in the mid-nineties, despite bans from school authorities. ↩
- Amongst OECD countries, Japan currently ranks around 20th for ‘working time’, measuring the average annual hours actually worked per person. The Japanese word karōshi, literally translated as "overwork death", has entered the lexicon of many different countries after cases were reported in post-1945 Japan. Japan's rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prosperity in the following decades is often regarded as the trigger for what has been called a new epidemic. ↩
- Art Nature is Tomggg’s latest EP, released in May 2016. It includes four songs, two of which are collaborations with vocalists, namely tsvaci and Bonjour Suzuki. Listen to Tick Tock Skip Drop feat. Bonjour Suzuki here: ↩
- This reminded us of Yuichi Yokoyama’s work. Although he is a manga artist, his work is closer in style to art pieces than traditional mangas. The cover of one of his mangas, Travel, is pictured below. If you’d like to find out more about Yuichi Yokoyama, please do read an interview featured in Back Cover’s 6th issue. ↩
- Kenji Ohtsuki is a Japanese rock musician, who performs solo as well as being the vocalist of a group called Kinniku Shōjo Tai. Listen here to his second single, “Anosaa”, released in 1995: ↩
- bo en is a British musician who, while based in London, has composed for Japanese adverts and collaborated with Japanese idols. Us Blah + Me Blah had the pleasure of interviewing him about his work, his strong ties with Japan and his musical ideology, available here. He is currently (as of July 2016) working on his second album. Meanwhile, feel free to check out his most-listened track, “miss you”: ↩
- Kero Kero Bonito is a music trio from London made up of British producers Jamie Bulled and Gus Lobban and half-Japanese, half-British vocalist Sarah Midori Perry. While their first encounter was rather unusual – Sarah found out about Gus and Jamie through mixb, a website for Japanese expats – they are now touring all over the world. Their musical style is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and video game music, making the most of Sarah’s bilingual capabilities, as you can hear on “Sick Beat”: ↩
- Sakura Rainbow is a music producer. While her/his Bandcamp is still active, her/his Twitter and Soundcloud accounts have been deleted. ↩
- Sarah Bonito is the lead vocalist for London-based music trio Kero Kero Bonito. She also works as an artist under her birth name, Sarah Midori Perry. She contributed vocals to Sakura Rainbow’s “Fly Away” (listen below), for which the cover, pictured below, was drawn by Kazami. Us Blah + Me Blah had the opportunity to hear about her creative process for her two passions – music and art – in an interview, available here. ↩
This interview was posted on 31 July 2016, and was originally conducted in Japanese.
Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Translation (English to Japanese):
Translation (Japanese to English):
Lucy Tasker & Tsukasa Tanimoto