Yoshitomo Nara - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Introduction

    Missing in Action 2 epitomises the sophistication of Yoshitomo Nara’s aesthetic and narrative strategies by 2001, featuring the full-body image of a small girl, her fringe cut short thus emphasizing the largeness of her curved head, and holding a clearly written sign that reads, ‘GO FOR BROKE’. 2001 marked a significant turning point in Nara’s career, having fully established and refined his visual lexicon of little girls with almond shaped eyes, large heads, and menacing smiles. In 2000, the artist moved back to Japan after living in Cologne, Germany for the past twelve years, where he had studied under the tutelage of the highly expressive German artist, A. R. Penck (1939-2017). 


    Missing in Action 2 features many similarities to Lot 17 - Yoshitomo Nara, Missing in Action (2000), which was executed by Nara two years prior to the present lot. Sharing the militaristic lingo, “Missing in Action” as their title, and representing an enigmatic solo character in the midst of a blank background, both works exemplify Nara’s wonderful ability to capture the tension between the sweetness of a child and the undertones of darkness and violence that permeate his imagery. Dressed in blue-green short-sleeved dresses, the girls of both these works are portrayed with squinching, jelly-bean shaped eyes and red smiles that are set in a hard straight line, evoking an undeniable agitation while nevertheless drawing the viewer in with their overall cuteness. Nara is master at establishing an immediate relationship between the viewer and his familiar characters, evoking in us an empathy for his imagery which leaves us wholly transfixed in the visions that he creates.


    The central figure of Missing in Action 2 is placed in the middle of a pale cream background, suggesting a certain depth due to the sensitive build-up of thin layers of paint, whilst guiding the viewer’s full attention onto the child and the poster that she is showing to the viewer. Missing in Action 2 was made at a time when Nara was just starting to depict many of his youthful figures face-on, often just from the chest up, making this present work an exceptional example of Nara’s full-body figures in his acrylic paintings before this stylistic and compositional change. 




    Yoshitomo Nara, My Little Sister, 2001
    Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York


    This work is painted on an Art/Domestic—Temperature of the Time exhibition paper, an important paper series executed between 1999 and 2002 from which two examples, OH! MY GOD! I MISS YOU. (2001) and My Little Sister (2001), have since been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and are now part of their permanent collection. Overall, Missing in Action 2 is a mature example of Nara’s paper works, beautifully painted with acrylic on one of his favoured paper surfaces, the Art/Domestic exhibition sheet, an exhibition in which the artist participated in 1999. 



    “Go For Broke”

    “Even though fourteen years had passed since the end of the war, things were still way behind out in the country. It was probably similar to what it had been like in Tokyo five years after the war...There were remnants of the war all over the place. I had a physical sensation that the entire area was filled with debris and ghosts.” 
    — Yoshitomo Nara


     Missing in Action 2 is steeped in militaristic connotations, through the military jargon of both its title, “Missing in Action” and the slogan, “Go For Broke”. Growing up in Hirosaki, a small castle town in the north of the Japanese island of Honshu, Nara was brought up near a US Air Force base, sparking in him a long-term interest in the armed forces and the military legacy that succeeded World War II. As stated by Yeewan Koon, Associate Professor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Hong Kong, his close proximity to the air base made Nara ‘acutely aware of his country’s complicated history with war and nuclear weaponry and power’i and as a result, bellicose motifs can be found throughout his deceivingly innocent, but sometimes blatantly explicit, oeuvre.


    References to war are particularly obvious in his paper works, a medium through which he chose to explore darker political themes. For example, in Somewhere Somewhere (1986), Nara sketches a nuclear mushroom cloud, seemingly bleeding behind the figure of a crucified man, blood dripping from where he has been nailed to the cross and singing the last notes of a melody as death approaches. 


    Yoshitomo Nara, Somewhere Somewhere, 1986


    In Missing in Action 2, the little girl brandishes a small paper poster in front of her that reads, ‘GO FOR BROKE’. This motto originally derived from 1940s gamblers’ slang in Hawaii, used when a player was risking it all in a daring effort to win big. Significantly, this motto was popularised by the US army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, becoming synonymous with this group that was made up entirely of segregated Japanese-American soldiers. After the attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbour, American soldiers of Japanese ethnic descent were banned from military service, thus forming this team determined to prove their honour and loyalty to the United States of America. The motto “Go For Broke” became a fitting slogan for the Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) cadets, coming from Hawaiian plantations and American incarceration camps to fight in the war, risking everything for victory against the Germans in Europe, as well as against racial prejudice at home.ii


    The 442nd Regimental Combat Team became the most decorated unit of the American army in World War II for their bravery, the small size of the team and length of service, influencing the 1951 Hollywood movie titled, Go For Broke!, a reference from popular culture from which Nara may have also drawn inspiration. 



    Poster for the 1951 Hollywood movie, Go For Broke!, directed and written by Robert Pirosh and starring Van Johnson, inspired by the true story of Japanese-American soldiers who fought during the Second World War


     Nara’s obsession with war and its legacy in Japan makes it highly probable that he is referring to the US army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Missing in Action 2, and highlighting the sacrifice of the Japanese-American soldiers who risked everything to prove their loyalty to the United States despite rampant racism amongst the population. Further, this painting explores the theme of disenfranchisement, a theme that preoccupied the artist for many years, as exemplified by his friendship and creative partnership with Banana Yoshimoto, whose books such as Hardboiled and Hard Luck (1999) for which Nara illustrated the front cover, had a huge impact on young adults in late 1990s Japan who were dealing with issues from disenfranchisement, feelings of vulnerability and the fear of the inevitability of death. As such, it is possible to read Missing in Action 2 as a statement against the establishment, emphasising the notion of disenfranchisement and institutionalised racism as faced by the troops of the 442nd, who were deprived of the right to fight alongside their American peers. 


    Banana Yoshimoto, Hard-boiled and Hard Luck, 1999, with front cover illustration by Yoshitomo Nara



    The militaristic significance of this painting, established not just by the title, Missing in Action 2, army terminology for troops who have not returned from service and whose whereabouts are unknown, and the slogan “Go For Broke”, but is also established in the work’s inclusion in the exhibition, ART & WAR at the Neue Galerie Graz Joanneumsviertel in Graz, Austria. Taking place between 11 January and 26 March 2003, this exhibition aimed to ‘depict the psychological and social changes brought about by war’ and differentiate ‘between crisis, war and art’.iii With Missing in Action 2, Nara demonstrates the persisting reverberations of war in contemporary society. Further, the same year that Missing in Action 2 was created, Nara was invited to travel on a photography expedition as part of the first edition of Foil magazine under the edition of ‘No War’ to Afghanistan and Pakistan, further reinforcing his preoccupation with the topic of war since his upbringing in post-World War Two Hirosaki. 


    Overall, Nara is making an explicit historical and cultural reference in Missing in Action 2 despite its deceivingly childlike innocence and simplistic imagery. This response to a Japanese subculture, anti-establishment feelings amongst radical students in the late 1960s and 70s, and feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability amidst many of the Japanese youth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is very subtle, but powerfully achieved by the choice of such a charged statement, held by a young child that demands our attention and our empathy. Here, as with most of his work, Nara explores the dichotomy of childhood innocence and adult anxieties in a highly engaging manner.

    The narrative potential of Kawaii 

    Nara’s employment of “cute” features in his oeuvre allows for powerful ‘communication through emotional reciprocity’,iv triggering an empathetic response in his viewer for the children in his work, and as such establishing a strong narrative strategy. Kawaii, a term which Koon describes as covering a ‘wide semantic range, from being sweet and lovely to pitiful and pathetic’iv is encapsulated in Nara’s innocent yet menacing characters like the little girl in Missing in Action 2, whose squinting eyes and firmly set mouth forms an audacious grimace. As such, the word kawaii has often been used when discussing the artist’s work. 


    “Nara holds a deep-seated belief that art needs to have the affective capacity to generate empathy and affinities between people who share a delight in the complexities of its expression.”
    — Yeewan Koon


    The Nobel Prize-winning ethnologist, Konrad Lorenz, first formulated the standard of cuteness in 1943 with his model of Kindchenschema (baby schema), delineating a set of childlike physical features, such as large head, round face and big eyes, that are distinguished as cute and thus trigger protective behaviour in adults in order to increase the likelihood of infant survival. This theory has since been expanded upon, with Koon describing how the ‘“Aww” factor, can lead to more complex social behaviours, including companionship, cooperative action and play, and communication through emotional reciprocity’, as commented upon previously.iv


    “Nara’s work translates this notion of kawaii into a process of aesthetics and affect in which the works he creates can cultivate responses that summon emotions and imaginations that feel familiar and can prompt empathetic connections.”
    — Yeewan Koon

    As claimed by Koon, Nara is able to use the notion of kawaii as an aesthetic strategy to tug on the emotions of the viewer and issue an empathetic response. He does this by using colours often associated with children, such as the pale green and primary red of Missing in Action 2, as well as his simple composition and monochromatic background that place all focus on the central figure and the sign that she’s displaying to the viewer. As further deliberated by Koon, ‘the lack of any background scenery limits the potential for narrative context, leaving the image open to multiple responses and interpretations’.iv Overall, the power of Nara’s work and Missing in Action 2 lies in his ability to immediately establish a relationship between his subject and viewer, creating a familiarity that allows us to connect with the little girl and want to protect her from any negativity or dangers in the world. 




    Art/Domestic — Temperature of the Time



    Image of the reverse of Missing in Action 2 (2002), showing the use of an exhibition paper from Tokyo, Setagaya Art Museum, Art/Domestic - Temperature of the Time, 1999



    Missing in Action 2 is a sophisticated example of Nara’s paper works for which he uses found objects as the base of his imagery. Nara paints the cute but slightly confronting figure of a little girl on an old exhibition paper for Art/Domestic—Temperature of the Time, visible only from the back, concealed by the artist’s layered application of acrylic paint in creating a pale, opaque background.


    Art/Domestic - Temperature of the Time was a groundbreaking exhibition held at the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo in 1999, organised by the renowned curator, Takashi Azumaya. Considered by many as a turning point in the history of Japanese contemporary art, Azumaya aimed to capture the mood, or the “temperature”, of the time, featuring seven artists, including Yoshitomo Nara, Shinro Ohtake, Takashi Nemoto, Atsuko Tanaka, Masami Tada, Yuicji Higashionna and Hiroyuki Ohki. 




    A photo of the participating artists of Art/Domestic - Temperature of the Time in 1999, including from left to right: Shinro Ohtake, Takashi Nemoto, Yoshitomo Nara, Atsuko Tanaka, Masami Tada, Yuichi Higashionna, Hiroyuki Ohki, and the exhibition’s curator, Takashi Azumaya



    In Art/Domestic - Temperature of the Time, Nara exhibited his now iconic, The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking) (1999), breaking conventions by displaying them in a very narrow, corridor-like space, facing different directions in a rather haphazard, almost random manner. These angelic little figures were portrayed in the midst of sleepwalking, about to bump into each other in their active slumber. These innocent, enigmatic figures of The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking) were sold by Phillips Hong Kong in May 2019, exceeding prior estimates with the sum of HK$10,950,000. 


    Yoshitomo Nara, The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking), 1999
    Sold at Phillips Hong Kong in May 2019 for HK$10,950,000



    Nara was interested in drawing and painting on a variety of found materials, such as used envelopes and brown packaging paper, and Missing in Action 2 belongs to a group of painted works that Nara executed on marketing material from Art/Domestic - Temperature of the Time, conspicuous between 1999 and 2002 but perhaps expanding beyond this time. The earliest works through which the exhibition title can be observed behind Nara’s thin layers of paint derive from the year 1999, as apparent in a work that featured in his children’s picture book, The Lonesome Puppy, first published in Japan in 1999, and the painting It’s a Cold Day (2000). 


    Image from Nara’s first children’s book, originally published in Japan in 1999 by Magazine House; Yoshitomo Nara, The Lonesome Puppy, San Francisco, 2008



    Here, Nara does not attempt to completely conceal the printed characters of the title, instead incorporating them into the composition and using them for his background. He paints his figures on top of the large, inverted white letters, and as such, there is a thick, graphic quality to his little girls from these early poster experimentations. In It’s a Cold Day, the upside-down letters of ‘ART/ DOME…’ are clearly visible under a light, hazy wash of white paint, on which the cantankerous image of a girl in red stands firmly in the centre, depicted in an outline of rough, black rudimentary lines, filled in with bright flat colours. 



    Yoshitomo Nara, It’s a Cold Day, 2000


     In 2001, he continued the use of the Art/Domestic paper as the base of his work, this time angling the paper on its side, and painting a series of small girls, primarily clothed in his now archetypal pale teal tea-dress that is worn in Missing in Action 2. Like the Art/Domestic works from 2000, Nara applies only a thin layer of white paint over the paper to create his lively backgrounds, incorporating his figures seemingly within the busy scenes that he constructs. In OH! MY GOD! I MISS YOU. (2001), part of MoMA’s permanent collection, the viewer can see hints of the exhibition paper, including the location of the show, the Setagaya Art Museum, written in the left-hand bottom corner of the image. The use of text produces a compelling, dynamic effect, transporting the central figure into a sort of city-scape, in which the background text becomes billboards and advertisements plastered over buildings lining a busy street. Further, by adopting the text of the paper in his own work, his slogans such as “OH! MY GOD! I MISS YOU.” do not appear to be out of place, operating in tandem with the surrounding words. 


     By 2002, Nara almost conceals his use of the Art/Domestic paper altogether by building up thick layers of acrylic paint in the background to create an opaque base for his central character, as in Missing in Action 2. With no hint of text in the background, it is interesting to consider his choice of this exhibition paper as a surface for his painting in the first place. Indeed, one outside of the artist and his studio can only speculate as to how many Art/Domestic paper works were created in 2002 without inspecting them in person, as generally by 2002 signs of text have been erased, differing greatly from these works between 1999 and 2001. A work titled, Missing in Action 3 was also created in 2002, and shares with the present lot an opaque, cream background. It is thus probable that this work was also executed on an Art/Domestic paper, although not certain. However, in Untitled (2002), white text is clearly apparent in the hair of the feline character sitting in a box, divulging the secreted essence of the background material in some paper works from 2002. 


    Yoshitomo Nara, Untitled, 2002



    Collector’s Digest 


    While his meteoric rise at the start of the twenty first century is often associated with his involvement with the renowned Japanese contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara is an art world heavy weight whose work has fetched astronomical sums at auction in recent years. While his reputation was primarily established in the new Pop context of Japanese art in the late 1990s and connections with Murakami’s Superflat, Nara’s sensitive renderings of children that explore the dichotomy of youthful innocence and anxieties associated with the adult experience have won the artist a legion of fans around the world. 


    The solo exhibition, I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME, at the Yokohama Museum of Art between 2001 and 2002, was pivotal in the artist’s career, signaling his return to Japan, and expressing a distinct confidence and maturity in his oeuvre. It is thus significant that Nara executed Missing in Action 2 in 2002, during a turning point in his career that many have marked as a period that witnessed some of his best work.


    This year, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) will hold the first international retrospective of the artist, originally scheduled for 2020 but postponed to 1 April to 5 July 2021, exhibiting his artworks through the lens of music. This retrospective will then go on to travel to Yuz Museum, Shanghai, the Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao, and the Kunsthal, Rotterdam.


    Nara’s paper works have also been featured in a recent solo show at Charles Moffett, New York, between 29 February and 4 April 2020, and multiple museum shows have been organised for this year, including Yoshitomo Nara at Dallas Contemporary, Dallas between 20 March and 22 August 2021, and Yoshitomo Nara at Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan between 12 March and 20 June 2021. The artist is currently represented by the illustrious Blum & Poe and Pace galleries.


    i Yeewan Koon, Yoshitomo Nara, London and New York, 2020, p. 6
    ii ‘History’, Go For Broke National Education Center, online 
    iii Graz, Neue Galerie Graz, Joanneumsviertel, M_ARS ART & WAR, 11 January - 26 March 2003, online 
    iv Yeewan Koon, Yoshitomo Nara, London and New York, 2020, p. 57

    • Provenance

      Galerie Zink & Gegner, Munich
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Graz, Landesmuseum Joanneum, Neue Galerie Graz, M_ARS: Art and War, 11 January - 26 March 2003, p. 362 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Noriko Miyamura and Shinko Suzuki, eds., Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Volume 2: Works on Paper 1984-2010, Tokyo, 2011, no. D-2002-013, p. 181 (illustrated)

Property from a Private Danish Collector


Missing in Action 2

signed, titled and dated '"MISSING IN ACTION 2" Nara [in Japanese] 2002' on the reverse
acrylic on paper
72.6 x 51.5 cm. (28 5/8 x 20 1/4 in.)
Painted in 2002.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for HK$7,026,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021