In the past several decades, Japanese popular culture has become inundated with a “cute” or kawaii aesthetic that is unique to the country. This imagery is present in media, advertising, and merchandise, and its appeal has expanded to overseas markets—the worldwide popularity of Hello Kitty being one of the best examples of this phenomenon. But when the bright colors, cartoon characters and whimsical subject matter began appearing in high art, it prompted a discussion as to why cuteness had developed such appeal and become so omnipresent. Japanese artists of the Superflat movement use the language of this pop culture iconography to explore what kawaii says about the Japanese people and their history. Takashi Murakami, founding member of the Superflat movement and author of its manifesto, views the development of kawaii as Japan’s response to World War II and the atomic bomb.
Murakami, “Mushroom Bomb Pink”
The Neutered State
When the Americans rewrote the Japanese constitution after World War II, they included a clause prohibiting Japan from using its army for anything but self-defense, and demanding that it remain a “peaceful state.” Some historians see Article 9 as a symbolic castration, forcing a policy of nonaggression and stripping the country of its right to express dissent through military action. In 2005, Murakami curated a show of Superflat art called “Little Boy,” also the codename for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The show’s catalogue directly faults Article 9 for the infantilism and willful innocence implied by the kawaii aesthetic, as it “forced the Japanese people into a mindset of dependency” and cast Japan in the role of a “child” obliged to follow America’s “adult guidance.” The New York Magazine review of the show notes that “Japanese pop represents the strange, even psychotic response of a population traumatized by World War II…from this vantage point, the firebombing of Tokyo evolved into the city stomp of Godzilla. The mushroom cloud became a pretty flower rising into the sky at the conclusion of a children’s TV show. Fantasies of power are irresistible to the impotent…” The sweetly naïve youthfulness of kawaii may well be attibuted to a sense of emasculation in Postwar Japan.
Murakami, “The Army of Mushrooms”
The Escapist Mentality
The growth of kawaii corresponds to the growth of otaku culture in Japan, and both kawaii and otaku provide a means of escape. Otaku can become engrossed in anime, manga, or other hobbies, sometimes to the detriment of their ability to interact with the outside world. The world of kawaii is a fantastical one by nature; where loaves of bread talk, cats wear pinafores, and children frequently possess special powers. In “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness,” Michael Darling cites anime legend Yoshinori Kanada as an inspiration for Murakami, and notes the escapist atmosphere of his work: “Kanada’s fanciful images of destruction serve to distance the viewer (and the creator) from the real horrors of war, and can be seen as a symptomatic retreat from an honest reckoning with the ravages of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Murakami also filters confrontation with the war through a cartoonish lens, but is aware of the dynamic and deliberately plays with it, as in “Mushroom Bomb Pink.” Here the mushroom cloud has formed the shape of a skull with two big eyes, painted against a fluorescent pink background. Mushrooms recur in many of his pieces, as in “The Army of Mushrooms.” The connection between the image of the mushroom and the miliaristic reference of the title is impossible to ignore, but the implications are obscured by the anthropomorphization of the mushroom and the sunny, springlike palette.
From an academic standpoint, Superflat art and the kawaii aesthetic it reappropriates is a means to examine many aspects of Japanese culture and self-perception. But forefront in the work of Takashi Murakami is a preoccupation with the past and how the Japanese choose to view and confront it.
1. Does Superflat art’s treatment of World War II help or hinder direct confrontation?
2. Does the irony of the Superflat style prevent it from having lasting impact?
3. American critics compare Murakami to Andy Warhol, but Murakami resists the comparison. Is there an aspect of Superflat art that Western audiences would have trouble interpreting?
Darling, Michael. “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness.” Art Journal 60.3 (2001): 77-89. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.
Holmberg, Ryan. “Little Boy: the Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.”Artforum International (2001).
Stevens, Mark. “Toxic Cuteness.” New York Magazine, May 21, 2005.
Trailer for Murakami’s new animation project:
Another interview with Murakami:
Murakami’s official site: http://www.takashimurakami.com
The fan site! http://www.takashimurakami.net/
Wired Magazine profile: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.11/artist.html
Entry contributed by Rachel Pick