The art of Japanese train trips

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Illustrations © LAURA ELLIOTT


Nobody does it better than the Japanese. Like sleeping in strange and seemingly uncomfortable contortions and angles while commuting on public transit, that is. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to this phenomenon, a veritable time capsule for photos of people devoted to the fine art of snoozing.

Instead of endless prattle and monologues that characterize Toronto’s daily TTC journeys, the sounds in Japanese trains are more likely to be the soft and sometimes sonorous snores of weary passengers.

With her sketchbook and camera on hand, Toronto-based artist and illustrator Laura Elliott captured such quotidian scenes of Japanese public life as they unfurled. Those candid, uncomplicated moments when people are unguarded speak to her the most.

“I drew little things I found interesting,” Elliott said, referring to her rendering of Japanese train scenes. “Everybody works so hard over there. They work really long hours and they don’t always get paid well for it. It’s so common to see people dead asleep.”

A graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), Elliott lived in Japan for more than three years, working as an English teacher. The copious amount of spare time she had was spent strolling and exploring Okayama and Nara, her adopted homes in Japan, and other parts of the country.

She chose Nara, the ancient former capital of Japan, and a city full of roaming deer, for its grand sites—ancient temples, among them—and its vibrant sense of community.

Much of Elliott’s imagery was drawn from observing people in transit, and beyond. There are seemingly comatose passengers sprawled in unusual positions and what emerges as all too universal: people lost in the book they’re reading or in their own thoughts. Then there’s the occasional woman who converts the subway space into her own personal powder room near the doors, adroitly applying eye shadow.

Though the colour of her skin and her facial features marked her as an outsider in Japan, Elliott said she felt more out of place because of her attire. “The cult of femininity is overblown” in Japan, she observed. “Girls just put way more effort into their appearance than here. It’s just this standard—[applied] eyelashes, hair that’s dyed, [clothes] styled perfectly…”

“There’s been so many times on the train where I would look at my shoes and say, ‘Well, I’m the only one wearing running shoes and they’re dirty,’ ” she added.

While women in Toronto can be just as conscious about their appearance, Elliott noted that the pressure to look polished is greater in Japan. Several of her illustrations capture girls whose hairdos are painstakingly (yet have the appearance of being effortlessly) woven with intricate decals and details, such as flowers, ribbons and feathers.

Elliott relied on photographs she took of her observations to shape her illustrations, adding and deleting details, and changing colours as they evolved.

Japan gave her work a new dimension, and changed her approach to art. “Before, I didn’t like to spend a lot of time putting detail on stuff because I thought it was tedious,” she explained. “Then I realized it’s a really great way to explore what you’re drawing.”

It’s no surprise then that her favourite piece, of a grimacing vendor at a spring festival hawking video games and knickknacks, is crafted in minute detail.


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