12.Kabayama Hisao

The three works at MORA by Kabayama Hisao are this airbrush painting and two large vertical drawings. All were rescued from the Ureshino Sightseeing Treasure House, which operated from 1983 in a corner of Saga prefecture, Kyushu, in the hot-spring town of Ureshino Onsen, a district renowned for its tea. The museum quietly shut down in 2014, ending the reign of one of Japan’s largest secret treasure houses.

The Ureshino Takeo Kanko Hihoukan was famous for its huge installation called ‘Harem.’ A sign introducing the exhibit said: A sexual wonderland, applying the latest in electronics to fully utilise ‘motion,’ ‘sound,’ ‘light’ and ‘images,’ to express love, sex, exotica and fantastical eroticism, in a three-dimensional, panoramic display. Also, don’t miss the ‘Great World Sex Vista,’ housing within a shining palace the beautiful ladies of international royalty and aristocracy. In its scale and content, it is the largest such display in Japan. The Harem covers 176 square metres and includes 15 mannequins, 8 fountain systems, a ceiling height of 7 metres and a production cost of 70 million yen.

The Harem was indeed overwhelming, but the rest of the building boasted a trove of artworks. The highly sexed mood was enhanced by the work by Kabayama, who was by then a master airbrush artist.

Kabayama Hisao, whose real name was Kurachi Hisao, was born in 1913. As a young man he ran an automobile paint shop in Amagi, Fukuoka prefecture. He started painting with his airbrush and compressor at the age of 55. With no one to teach him, he struggled to live as a budding yet mature-age artist. He died in 1993, aged 78, from ‘thinners poisoning caused by painting materials.’ His son, Kurachi Kumio, is a well-known experimental folk musician.

Kabayama never ran out of ideas. He would paint the sliding fusuma doors of new houses, and explored sand painting and glass painting. He was indifferent about his finances. Those close to him recall him saying, “I don’t care for money, I just want us all to have fun.” It was not uncommon for him to barter his art for food, and he reportedly offered a painting as payment for a bottle of whisky. It was said that his family’s meals sometimes consisted of “instant noodles for about three days, which he bought on credit, and sometimes when he went shopping all he could buy was one bag of rice.” Still, he was particular about his food, and red meat was his favourite. He told friends his hands would shake if he didn’t eat steak, and he once acquired an industrial oven to cook whole chickens, with which he hosted a big barbecue.

His dinner parties were a common extravagance, and his son Kumio remembers with a laugh that whenever he had visitors, Kabayama would invite them to eat together. He was all the merrier with women, whom he would compliment on their buttocks — and often enjoy a feel. Nevertheless, says Kumio, his father was a man of character who remained selfless to the end — although he was cheated a lot.

Kabayama paid no attention to his appearance, dressing every day in the same overalls, a gift from the president of a local driving school. With no art education whatsoever, he was also self-taught in the use of an airbrush, and travelled the country from Kyushu to Hokkaido to work on commissions. In his hometown he rented a studio from a construction worker friend, and said he was proud to be described as an ‘erotic painter’ rather than an artist. He preferred his work to float not on the walls of a brightly lit gallery, but under the bare bulbs or black light of a secret treasure museum. He was delighted to be commissioned as an illustrator of erotic novels, and through his expansive lifestyle was devoted to making a spectacle of his work. Kabayama Hisao lived and was forgotten as an outsider. His family says he “joked until the time of his death” that no one paid any attention to his life or his achievements.