From Cuteness to Darkness — A Tribute to Japanese Artist Munokubo

Artwork by Monokubo. Source: Pixiv

It has almost been three whole months, yet the thought of one of my favorite illustrators has passed still rips a piece from my heart. For years, I quietly followed Monokubo across social media, witnessing the change in her art’s subject and style.

However, while I was one of the people wondering what has the artist gone through IRL, I never expected her death at such a young age. Her art had so much energy and hoped hidden beneath, and all I could picture was a timid and humble girl kindly giving the world a bit of fluffy, cuteness, and comfort with her talent.

As an artist who struggles with physical and mental health issues myself, I wasn’t sure if I should write an arbitrary article. , it would almost be impossible not to assume what the artist went through based on my experience.

However, the more I went back to look at her art, the more I felt obligated to introduce her work to more people in this world. So here we go. I’ll take you through Monokubo’s artistic world, and I’ll try my best to not let voice distract you from her art.

Illustrations by Monokubo. Source: Pixiv

Most people know Monokubo for her giant fluffy animals, mostly thanks to the feature on My Modern Met. You can also find a slightly more in-depth article on Door Nob, whose author clearly had more knowledge of art and the artistic process.

I’m not surprised by the heavy focus on the artist’s Ghibli-like style. As private as Monokubo was, she didn’t provide much personal information for journalists to write heart-wrenching articles. So, what’s easier than throwing in a whole album of gigantic fluffballs and focusing solely on cuteness?

However, anyone with keener eyes would soon notice some universal themes in these lovely fantasy illustrations. For example, humans in these illustrations almost always seem lonely and exhausted, at least in her more mature illustrations. Some looked like they had a long day and just needed to crash. So they threw their stuff aside and planted themselves face-down in their gigantic pets. Others looked as if they had nowhere else to go and nobody to talk to. So, happily or miserably, they share their unspeakable secrets, exuberating fantasies, or the pretty flower they saw on their way to school with the animalistic wandering deities (野良神).

Source: Pixiv

Another unique element in Monokubo’s early illustrations is her palette choices. And that’s also the main reason that I find it ridiculous how many supposedly professional critics are comparing her work to Ghibli movies (perhaps that’s the only thing they can think of when it comes to giant cute animals). Because, unlike Ghibli, who uses poster colors as the primary medium to reach a high saturation, high vibrance appearance, Monokubo’s palette displays a certain muddiness that even elements meant to be bright, such as the sky, grass, or flowers, appeared shaded.

Furthermore, it’s impossible to overlook the split composition of dark and light in her illustrations. Except for a few set in a darker environment, almost all illustrations from her Mofu Mofu (Japanese for fluffy) period indicated the coexistence of darkness and light. Or the idea of light piercing through lasting darkness where the fluffy animals served as providers of comfort and safety. Cunningly hidden, much heavier weight than the chubby animals was hidden behind these illustrations.

Artwork by Monokubo. Source: Pixiv

The shadow lingering around the giant animals grew as time went by. Even the artist herself has given her latest illustrations a disturbing name of “the unstable style (不穏系).”

We have no way to tell whether the instability came from mental illness or physical malignants. Regardless, it is quite obvious that the artist has decided to open the pandora’s box hidden in the back of her mind. Broken wings, distorted figures resembling corpses, broken and deformed creatures, and most importantly, a new recurring symbolism: a child whose face is hidden. Sometimes it’s a bag. Other times, a rusty bucket. It’s almost as if the artist could not stand her own existence.

And it is a topic that I, as an artist myself, am very much familiar with. I often speak of how intolerable the reality is, whether it be the reality as an abstract concept or the society and system we must negotiate with. If anything, the unstable illustrations are clearly more elaborate and developed in terms of techniques and concepts. Straying away from the cute animals where the darkness was hidden, Monokubo chose to embrace and present her shadow to the world in a magical realism fashion. The animalistic elements are still visible. However, with the chubby, fluffy appearances, the dragons, mermaids, and crows in her later illustrations were more mutants than fairytale creatures. They reside in dumpsters, abandoned houses, and were hung upside down like butchered pigs.

Were they deities exiled by the general public?

Artwork by Monokubo. Source: Pixiv

Nonetheless, the light prevailed. Even in her latest illustrations, you can always find a glimpse of hope among the smoke-covered skies, butchered trees, and deformed creatures. It is almost always presented in the form of light slipping into the darkness, breaking a stale.

So, as unstable as Monokubo’s later illustrations appeared, homeostasis is implied. On the one hand, you have monstrous creatures, shattered ruins, and stormy skies. But, on the other hand, almost everything is portrayed with childlike innocence, whether children holding a monster’s hand or two hugging each other regardless of species differences.

Finally, the concept of heading out on a journey is repeated in many of Monokubo’s illustrations, both in her earlier and later stages. Someone is waiting on the other side. Someone has seen all your hard work… Perhaps the artist treats her life as an ongoing journey while anticipating an ending nearby. So, amidst frustration, fear, and sadness, she created herself a world where light eventually broke her darkness. Where, even as a ruin, still harbored imagination, compassion, and possibilities.

Artwork by Monokubo. Source: Pixiv

On Dec 31, 2021, Monokubo tweeted her New Year resolution: “I’ll work hard to see the end of this year as well.” On Jan 24th, she sunk into endless permanent sleep.

There is no need to guess what happened or how it happened. After all, everything an artist has to say and show is already in her artwork. If anything, I could only hope that Monokubo went somewhere filled with light, warmth, and hope.

May someone hold you gently and tightly. May all the light and longing in your art finally come true.




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