tatsuya tanaka
Welcome to Tanaka's universe of mini trees and fingernail-sized inhabitants. Image Credit: Tatsuya Tanaka

Rows of rice harvesters are bent over an emerald rice paddy field. From this vantage point, their tiny bamboo hats resemble discs of potato chips as they work on the staple grain. But something isn’t right. An ordinary scene brought to life by Tatsuya Tanaka is never what it seems. And guess what? The innocuous rice field is actually a PC circuit board.

Similar 4,000-plus odd scenarios have kept the Japanese artist and miniature photographer busy for the past 10 years. Like any creator, 40-year-old Tanaka lives in his own carefully crafted multiverse, with a unique perspective.

tatsuya tanaka
Tatsuya Tanaka's rice paddy field and its harvesters. Image Credit: Tatsuya Tanaka

Beauty in little things

In his world, an ice lolly is a suitcase and brush bristles are piano keys. Modelling his grocery spoils are dolls as big as fingernails, painstakingly held between clippers and painted. Sometimes bought online, sometimes made using a 3D printer, each millimetre-high figurine helps tell a story. Once the pieces are glued and set, Tanaka picks up his camera for a photo session. The scale is almost deceptive, till a double take reveals the clever details.

“I display beauty in little things, by combining common objects with items from my library of tiny figurines,” Tanaka shared with Gulf News in an interview. He calls his art a much-needed reminder for the world to reflect and appreciate. “Our world has become so chaotic that we’ve forgotten to pause and look around. So I want to welcome everyone into [these small worlds].”

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Tatsuya Tanaka poses with his miniature worlds at Expo 2020 Dubai's Japan Pavilion. Image Credit: Supplied

Mitate-style of work

When you’re looking at a Tanaka miniature, you’re experiencing an art form of the 17th-century Edo period. Japanese classical poetry was all the better for ‘mitate’, a literary technique that allowed writers to infer something by using an unlikely expression, much like a metaphor. Not only was mitate a hit with the poets but artists began to pick up on the tool to create parody paintings, featuring commoners as heroes.

Just as how we would recognise the oddity of a toilet paper roll in the place of a ski slope, the Edo-period audience was equally tickled pink by the layers of meaning in an art piece. Regrettably, their inside jokes are beyond us in the 21st century. Tanaka’s mitate, however, perfectly taps into our sense of humour. Broccolis for trees, anyone?

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Or an eyeshadow palette for ice-cream, anyone? Image Credit: Tatsuya Tanaka

This is probably why his miniature worlds are a source of endless joy. He said: “It is a child’s imagination at its best, untampered and full of explorations. This is being a kid all over again… It all started out as a hobby of taking photos of my collection of diorama dolls and sharing online.”

Delighted Instagram followers, who simply could not get enough of his playful perspective, inspired Tanaka’s longstanding project. Year after year, since 2011, the artist has birthed and captured one tiny world daily for his online ‘Miniature Calendar’.

Our toilet paper roll, Tanaka’s next project

Our grocery haul is his raw material for the next scale model – the ongoing holiday season, for instance, features an ‘onigiri’ (rice ball) Christmas tree. From cosmetics and food items to pandemic essentials like masks and gloves, everything behind the camera lens is something we can relate to. The entire affair up till the final result can take Tanaka anywhere between three to five hours.

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Ski slopes made out of toilet roll paper. Image Credit: Tatsuya Tanaka

A decade and counting, dishing out one creative piece after the other is a breeze for the mitate artist.

“My inspiration is unlimited – it stems from everyday chores and lifestyle. I don’t restrict myself with a set of rules. I keep my eyes open and my mind focused... going to the supermarket alone gives me ample scenarios,” he said.

The artist has taken his calendar exhibition to several museums and art galleries in Japan, Germany, South Korea and the UAE, where the Japan Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai boasts a part of his collection.

Tanaka points out that people’s reaction to his work is similar, which they don’t realise. Its proof, he adds, that we have more in common than we dare express: “No matter who you are, your inner most thoughts are similar to those across the world. These hidden mitate worlds are a reminder of our beautiful world, commonalities and life’s bounties.”

So, we all secretly agree that broccolis are, indeed, trees.