The Playful Icons of Hiroshi Mori

While browsing Pinterest recently, I found this:

Beneath, some wags had christened this the “Moe Lisa” by “Leonardo Doujinshi.” The whimsical, anime-esque style reminds me of the playful appropriations of Western art by Hiroshi Mori (not to be confused with the novelist by the same name). (I was not able to confirm if the “Moe Lisa” specifically was his, though it wouldn’t surprise me.) Mori loves to blend Western art styles with anime techniques.

One area of Mori’s work I really enjoy is his treatment of Christian religious themes. He has, for instance, half a dozen portrayals of Joan of Arc as a cyborg centaur:

What is the value of such a depiction? Well, first of all, it’s fun! Second, it helps brush off the dust of familiarity that inevitably covers important things (and people) in our lives, so that we can encounter them again with all the freshness we did the first time. Do you remember the feelings when you first dated or married someone? How about when when you first consciously encountered Jesus, and gave your life to him?

Those were days of excitement, joy, and energy. Of course, they couldn’t last forever. Familiarity breeds, perhaps not contempt, but at least boredom. “Did I fall in love with the wrong person?” “Is the magic in our relationship gone?” “Did I really give my life fully and properly to God?” “Have I turned my back on Jesus? Or has he turned his back on me?”

Of course, none of our doubts are true; yet the change in feelings is undeniable. Is there a way to encounter someone for the first time again? It can happen by accident; we can also train ourselves to see things afresh. JRR Tolkien believed that Western fantasy could help us to see the familiar as new; I believe the same is true of anime. A love story with an elf, a saint who is a centaur, a god who (like the one in Noragami) is desperate for believers: All can help us experience what GK Chesterton called “Mooreeffoc”, seeing something we’re used to as suddenly strange and startling. (Why did Chesterton use this word? One day, he saw a sign that said “Coffeeroom” backwards. A normal word appeared in a new way.) And in doing so, we come to know the other thing or person better.

Here’s another piece:

What’s neat about this one is the way Mori blends the anime style with the iconographic art style prevalent in Eastern Christianity. The gold, the pose, the ornate detail: None of this would be out of place in an Eastern Orthodox church. But what about the large, round-eyed anime face? Could that have a place in church?

Of course, there was a time when no art style was common in churches, because there were no churches. Icons, banners, crosses, statues, stain glass: Every form of religious art is born from the womb of a particular culture, nourished in within a living society’s special forms of expression. I like to think that two centuries from now scholars of religious art will study the Mori school of iconography. Maybe we’ll see depictions of biblical events like this:

The scene is the moment of the Incarnation, God becoming human. The angel, Mary, the Holy Spirit: I’ve seen or read about this a thousand times. But Mori is the only artist to put a nuclear blast at the center. Why?

One could of course read it as a deconstruction of Christianity as a tool of the colonizing powers to control Japan. But there is no sign of destruction from the blast, and the scene is filled with trees and animals, with life. The circle around the mushroom cloud even resembles a halo. To me, the image reads thus: The Incarnation fundamentally and irreversibly altered the world, and even the raw power of a nuclear bomb converting matter to energy pales beside the Son taking on human flesh and converting souls. “Let there be light.” A symbol of death in the world becomes a sign of life in the heart.

I encourage you to check out Mori’s art, both the religious and the secular. Your day will be a little brighter because of it.


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