Her polka-dot covered paintings and sculptures have placed Japan’s Yayoi Kusama among the world’s most popular living artists, but she’s had one heck of a struggle to get there. That’s the key takeaway from this conventional but illuminating biographical feature doc, which shows how Kusama’s often brightly hued art is a response to the deep-rooted scars her troubled life has inflicted upon her. At 89 years old, in crimson wig and matching robes, she looks like she’s just walked out of one of her own artworks, yet while she busies herself on an expansive new canvas, we also learn that her studio’s in close proximity to the psychiatric hospital where she’s been in care, by choice, since a 1977 suicide attempt.
The film seems wary of intruding, but gives us enough of an outline to grasp the cumulative psychological impact of a repressive provincial upbringing, the racism and sexism in the New York art scene’s sometimes scornful treatment of her, and subsequent pariah status in Japan after her nude US happenings in protest against the Vietnam War scandalised the media. With such juicy subject matter perhaps a braver filmmaker would have gotten something more intense out of Kusama’s gnarly back story, but if it all seems a little underplayed, the sober, factual approach does offer a user-friendly primer. Above all, it frames Kusama’s gruelling trajectory, from rejection to adulation, as a truly inspirational art-world story for our times.