Esoterico-elemental Artistry

The best Japanese illustrators tend to  be elemental: a single-minded, concentrated force runs through their work, making it really easy for fans to spot an ABe, a Murata…  To prove this, I will associate my favorite artists with the 5 elements of Japanese tradition.

Guess the element!  hints: hair, gun

Guess the element! hints: hair, gun

3 things before I start.  First, the Japanese elements come from Buddhism, and they are different from the old Chinese system which predates Buddhism.  1)  China has wood, fire, earth, metal, water.  Japan has earth, water, fire, air, void/space.  2) The Chinese system has each of these elements transform into each other constantly, whereas in Japan there is a hierarchy of separate elements, from earth through to the void.  (But I don’t mean to imply my choice for Earth artist is inferior to my Water artist, etc.)

Next, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism (Shingon=真言) associates each of these elements with a Buddha, and I will work with these connections as well.  Before you accuse me of blasphemy or sacrilege, let me assure you that the Shingon sect teaches very openly that its imagery and cosmology are just crutches to use on your way to the truth, and that any set of associations, mythologies is just that.

Finally, I’m using two pics per artist.  The first is meant to be a good example of the elemental force of the artist.  The second is simply a favorite of mine.  The kanji for each element are my own addition.

So, with that done, here they are!


This is easy.  Earth is physical and it likes to resist.  Jun Tsukasa likes to portray healthy bodies enclosed in armor (his original doujin circle is called “Armored Girl”.  Hosho in the esoteric system is the Buddha that realizes that everything has value of some sort: he is the master of non-discrimination.  There is no pretension in Tsukasa.  He is truly a down-to-earth kind of guy.



He can do cute too!



With titles like “Water Phosphorus” and “Fluid” to his credit, Yoshitoshi ABe is even easier to peg on the elemental scheme.  Ashuku is the calming Buddha, always ready to soothe the angry mind and lead to the pure mirror of the mind.  If that’s not ABe’s mission in life, I don’t know what is!



ABe could do a great set of illustrations for LOTR.



The element of Fire is agressive, energetic and passionate.  It likes to move things (Air is slightly different, see below).  Amida’s color is red, his jewel the ruby, and his throne seat the peacock.   With that in mind the link with Okama‘s art is made clear.  Take us to West!



On second thought, maybe this next pic is more fiery.



Air likes to move in freedom, move itself, rather than move other things like Fire does.  Range Murata can be icy-cold in his work sometimes, but you can’t take it personally, it’s just Air doing what it does best.  The Air kanji also means “style” in Japanese, and Murata’s is cool no doubt about it.  Fukujoju is the Buddha of accomplishment.



Murata + eye-patch girl + black wings = greatness.



Dainichi Nyorai is the supreme entity in Esoteric Buddhism, from Tibet to Japan.  Void represents energy and is at the top of the elemental scheme.  In some ways void is what holds up all the elements together, in another sense it is what denies and transcends them.  I don’t know who to put here!!!  Maybe it should go blank, or maybe..

The Void

The Void

I’ll be curious to hear your opinions and suggestions.

~ by Haloed Bane on February 26, 2009.

17 Responses to “Esoterico-elemental Artistry”

  1. I love how you simplified character illustrations into ‘elementals’, but I am not sure if I agree with the images capturing the feel of them, particularly with fire. I was expecting fire character designs to more ‘jump’ at me, and excite me.

  2. Before I even started, I thought “ABe, Murata, and Okama will all be on this list” and I was right! Major kick ass.

    I can definitely see ABe for water, the first guy for earth, and Okama for fire. Murata as wind though, I’m not totally sold. However, the buddhist image painted by wind is different from the one I’m used to.

    Not sure about ‘void’

  3. This post owns. I know very little about the illustrators you featured as well as Buddhism beyond what I can remember from uni. Nonetheless I appreciate the ambition of the post. Verve sir, you have it.

    And I feel bad that I don’t have a suggestion for void for I am illiterate about illustrators. If you can find someone who paints scenes rather than portraits (I know mangaka have teams of illustrators that have specific roles, so you may have to discern); someone who is a master of composition that uses space (empty space) very well. The void that holds the elements of the illustration together.

    Shinkai comes to mind, specifically stills from 5cm/second, but you may know of better examples that represent my idea.

  4. One learns a lot from reading Iwa ni Hana and for void, I suggest Eno’s illustrations. In her words, it is related to the concept of ‘ji bai don hei’, which more or less means ‘deliberate blanks in a painting’, depicting an immaterial world of nothingness and void 虛.

    god damn it, what kind of crack is she on to pull that golden site down so suddenly -__-

  5. I’d like to know if you can do this as an application to any individual artist. I was looking through my artist site favorites for a good ‘void’ and I cane to yaginuma who I don’t know how to classify. I want to say void, but his pictures cram a lot into them. These pictures are usually coldly colored, though, so fire is not possible, and they lack the flow of water. I’ll leave it to you. Make sure you thoroughly explore the page.

  6. Gaguri, Okama walks that fine line between sultry and sublime time and time, though he tends to go more jumpin’ jumpin’ than not.

    For Void, I’m gonna put a vote out for Yasushi Suzuki, artist behind Ikaruga and Purgatory Kabuki. Not so much on Purgatory, but Ikaruga’s art increases my love for it a million times more.


    Tsukasa and ABe were easy. Okama was the hardest (if I was using the Chinese elements I would have possibly put him under Wood. Wood leads to Fire in China so they’re close anyway). Then again, Okama loves peacock motifs so the Fire Buddha works well. Murata I’m satisfied with, although the Chinese Metal element could also fit. If I was doing Persona elements, I might put him under Ice…


    1) gaguri’s Eno is definitely a heavy void content artist, as iwa ni hana (the goddess!) puts so well. But she relies too much on landscape for this group (i’m trying to focus on portraits).
    2) ghostlightning suggested Shinkai’s 5cm/sec. I’d have to watch the film, just from the stills I lean toward Air more than Void.
    3) digiboy, yaginuma’s pretty cool huh. the characters remind me of maka from soul eater..his lines remind me of Water, as if all of his world is actually under water.and i somehow get the feeling he’d get along with ABe…

    I don’t think you can apply this to all artists because most of them will be mixed using several elements. my point was that the greatest (or maybe I should say, my favorite) artists seem to focus on one element.

  8. @pretty

    It’s hard getting a fix on Yasushi bcos he’s been published in the States, which means the Gestapo clamps down on the images. Judging from this link on his own website, I’d say he definitely digs the Void.

  9. Thank you for this post.
    May I suggest Sho-u Tajima for Void, because he makes so much use of blank spaces in his art (well, I’m mainly looking at MPD Psycho right now). Or would you peg him as Air, instead?
    And a question: if you know the work of Terada Katsuya at all, which element would you say comes out the most in his pictures? I want to say Esrth, because he’s certainly very physical and earthy. But some of the images have a lot of energy in them (his Monkey King pictures!) so would that make him a Fire artist?

  10. @quiet guy

    Thanks for the suggestions. Let me start with Terada. I took a peek at his Zenbu artbook before. Just judging from that, I’d say he’s totally Earth. I also notice that his artist name is Terra, which is Earth in Latin, so at some level he might even be aware of his elemental force! I haven’t seen Monkey King though..

    Tajima is hard for me. the artbook that i’ve seen of his (girls light velocity) has this diffuse thing going that’s definitely Void, but I’d say that’s a just one aspect and not the central one. If you ask me, I sense more Earth than anything (but that’s just me). Some of the eyes seem kinda fiery too! All in all, there’s something of the demonic in tajima’s work (earth + fire + void).

    The more I think about it the more I suspect it’s impossible for an artist to make Void the central element in his work….

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  12. I really like Abe’s paintings 🙂

    One of the artists I like that may or may not fit the void category is this one 🙂

  13. This artist is cool, but I don’t see any void in it. Seems like s/he is going for a soft touch when it comes to elements.

    BTW, ABe rules!

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  15. […] Yeah, I’m just going to ignore that. Circle UB, Okama, I love him. He’s on fire. Good buy, […]

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  17. […] Yeah, I’m just going to ignore that. Circle UB, Okama, I love him. He’s on fire. Good buy, […]

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