Out in the alley behind the Sunset Boulevard comic book emporium/art gallery Meltdown, four of the 23 members of the Japanese art collective Shibuya Girls Pop were painting in front of a live audience. As the party raged inside, Sayaka Iwashimizu, Shinjuko, Eimi and Hiroshi Mori filled two canvases with overlapping images. On one, young women dressed in school uniforms with hip accessories chatted on cellphones. Another referenced Hayao Miyazaki's film Kiki's Delivery Service with a girl wearing a large bow in her hair flying on a broomstick.

Surrounding the artists was a crowd of L.A. party-hoppers. Some were dressed as their favorite characters from Japanese cartoon series, while other girls were decked out in frothy, doll-like dresses in the style of Lolita fashion trend, and boys sported pastel glam outfits that were almost, but not quite, retro '80s. Less than a month after surviving the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the members of Shibuya Girls Pop had arrived in Los Angeles to a rock-star welcome.

The show marked the opening of “Magical Girls: Art Inspired by Shojo Manga,” a landmark event in the local Japanese pop culture community — and not only because it's the first major L.A. exhibition by Shibuya Girls Pop, who are already well known in Japan. In a city where art shows based on comic books and cartoon series are relatively common, this was the first such show in which the inspiration was comics and cartoons created specifically for girls.

Shibuya Girls Pop was founded two years ago by the art director Kazuhiro Kato. The collective began with just one artist, Nana Aoyama, and a new member is added each month. Not all of “The Girls,” as they are sometimes known, are female — “Girls” refers to the intended audience, young women who hang out in Tokyo's fashionable shopping and nightlife ward.

The members of Shibuya Girls Pop were brought together by a similar inspiration — kawaii, a Japanese word that roughly means cute, used mainly by young women to describe anything from the latest fashion to stationery covered in anthropomorphic characters.

“When Japanese girls see anything they like — whether it be cute or cool or lovely or nice — they always say, Kawaii!” says Mori, one of only two male artists in the collective, via email. “I want to draw something that makes them say kawaii!”

Often, when it's attributed to art, kawaii has a more subversive connotation. Takashi Murakami and the Superflat artists use kawaii as a commentary on how Japanese media exploits cute images. Shibuya Girls Pop incorporates kawaii to comment on the often rebellious post-adolescent journey toward self-discovery that Japanese women experience.

In some respects, the closest kin to Shibuya Girls Pop is L.A.'s pop surrealist movement, which began in the 1970s and is often known by its more derogatory name, lowbrow art. That movement is composed of a group of artists, including Natalia Fabia, Buff Monster and Luke Chueh, who have drawn upon the influence of Japanese pop culture and kawaii (all three have had solo shows at Corey Helford Gallery in the past year).

In “Fashionable Aftertaste Without End,” Fabia painted L.A. fans of Lolita fashion and referenced the popular Japanese character Domo. Buff Monster's melted ice cream characters are in that so-sweet-it's-subversive category, and Chueh's famed gory bear painting Possessed recalls Japanese-style mascots. These artists paved the way for the Girls to hit L.A.

With most members of Shibuya Girls Pop in their 20s, youth culture isn't so much an influence on their work as it is a part of their lives. Individually, their work has appeared on album covers, cellphone skins and backpacks. They contribute to pop culture as much as they ingest it.

Eimi's sultry, long-lashed girls are often placed against a backdrop of hot pink and lime green with geometrical shapes as accents —  colors and patterns popular in Tokyo street fashion. Shinjuko, a multimedia artist whose artwork appeared on Gwen Stefani's album Love. Angel. Music. Baby., also makes clothing and considers her apparel work part of her collection of “3-D pieces,” along with sculpture and ceramics. She also creates comics and animated videos, both of which figured prominently in “Magical Girls.”

Within manga — the term for Japanese comic books — shojo manga is a genre created specifically to appeal to girls, and it usually is centered around characters who are middle and high school students. The genre has taken off in the United States, where there was no previous equivalent in the comic book world. Titles like Vampire Knight and Ouran High School Host Club, both revolving around teenage girls dealing with unusual situations at school, frequently hit The New York Times' best-seller list's manga section.

The Meltdown show focuses on a subgenre of shojo manga known as “magical girl” stories, in which a young heroine discovers she has supernatural powers and then uses those gifts to help save the world. It's a sci-fi/fantasy approach to serial storytelling that contrasts with the more reality-based romantic comedies and teen dramas also found in manga sections. The most famous example of a magical girl, at least in the U.S., is Sailor Moon, the title character of a superheroine manga and television series that became popular during the 1990s.

The main force in bringing the show to L.A. is Caro, the L.A.-based curator and manager, who stumbled upon Shibuya Girls Pop while she was scouting artists for her annual group show inspired by Japanese street fashion, “Sweet Streets.” She now represents the collective in the U.S. “When I found the Girls, I was shocked and amazed by (a) how young they were and (b) how talented they are,” she recalls.

Although several artists from the collective have appeared previously in L.A. shows, including “Sweet Streets” last September and “What Is Q?” at Q Pop in January, “Magical Girls” serves as the group's first Los Angeles exhibition of its own.

In some ways, though, the collective made its debut on March 19 at Japanese pop culture store JapanLA on Melrose with a fundraiser art show that they inspired. Three weeks before the opening at Meltdown, the themes of the group's work  — Japanese culture, altruism and magic — became more significant when northeastern Japan was struck by a 9.0 earthquake followed by a tsunami. Though the collective's members are scattered across Japan, many are based in Tokyo.

“Everyone [in the show] is affected differently, some more than others,” says Caro.

“My grandmother lost her home during the tsunami, a place I would visit during summer vacation as a child,” says Akira Ebihara, an artist from the collective, in an email. “For three days, I could do nothing but draw and cut magazine paper until I learned of her safety and the world was happy once more.”

As northeastern Japan was continually rattled by aftershocks, art became not only a job but an escape. “I completed [the 'Magical Girls' pieces] during the blackouts and continuous aftershocks,” Mori says. “During these terrifying and worrying days and nights, I was able to find momentary relief while I was drawing. I was so focused on drawing them, I was able to temporarily escape from the catastrophe that was happening.”

“You figure creating artwork becomes less important in light of the earthquake, but when it first occurred I wanted to draw more than anything,” Eimi agrees via email. “I just wanted to feel like myself again, so creating art made me feel stronger.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Caro was working to help the Girls and make sure she could still get them and their art to L.A. for their show at Meltdown. Because of the rampant phone outages, they kept in touch through Twitter, relaying news with the help of the Twitter hashtag #prayforjapan.

Along with JapanLA owner Jamie Rivadeneira, and Michelle Nguyen and True Mee Lee of party promotion company Bubble Punch, Caro launched the #PrayForJapan fundraiser art show. In less than a week, dozens of artists and volunteers contributed to the show, which raised more than $11,000 to aid American Red Cross efforts in Japan.

In the wake of the earthquake, for party hoppers in the Japanese pop culture scene in L.A., kawaii has taken on another shade of meaning — hope for the future of Japan.

One artist, Iwashimizu, drafted her paintings before the earthquake, but the tragedy gave her new inspiration. “Originally, I would have liked to draw many children, believing in magic, things that are part of shojo and those 'once upon a time' stories,” she says. “After the earthquake, I drew the magic we are truly praying for.”

“Magical Girls: Art Inspired by Shojo Manga” is on view through April 22 at Meltdown, 7522 W. Sunset Blvd.

LA Weekly