The Murakami Method

ARTHUR LUBOW – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
April 3, 2005
At the Mori Arts Center, which is perched atop a skyscraper in the glittering Roppongi Hills development in Tokyo, I recently visited a museum show, ”Universal Symbol of the Brand,” that displayed (to quote its catalog) ”the fascinating development of the history and endeavors of Louis Vuitton, the brand that is not only incredibly popular in Japan but also beloved throughout the world.” A sequence of galleries exhibiting luggage and handbags proceeded to a large advertising photograph of the actress Uma Thurman and smaller shots of runway models, all wearing Vuitton fashions. What drew me to the show, however, were two bags in the variation of the Vuitton pattern that the Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami developed with the company in 2003. The brightly colored Murakami line has been phenomenally successful, with sales reported to be in the vicinity of $300 million. Murakami’s handbags were presented along with two small paneled screens painted in the same patterns that appear on the bags.
The handbags in the museum exhibition were hardly Murakami’s only contribution to the Roppongi Hills complex of glass-and-steel towers. Cute cartoonlike characters that he had created as branding elements for the center — Barney-like brontosaurs, droopy-eared rabbits and smiling aliens — grinned down on me from pennants and from express buses to Roppongi Hills. In the same development, at a large Vuitton store, new handbags in a cherry design by Murakami would soon be introduced, along with a couple of the artist’s sculptures of a red, smiling cherry. Last year at another Vuitton shop in Tokyo, Murakami displayed a large fiberglass sculpture and a four-panel screen painted in his LV monogram design.
So, in Tokyo, an art museum was displaying luggage, a luggage shop was exhibiting art, an artist had developed a branding campaign — and nobody thought anything out of the ordinary. If you want to understand why Murakami’s art feels so dizzyingly up to date, this leveling of status grades among art, advertising and merchandise at Roppongi Hills is a good place to start. When I asked Tomio Koyama, Murakami’s dealer in Tokyo, why he hadn’t shown the monogram work in his gallery, he explained, ”In Japan, a gallery has no meaning, and a Louis Vuitton shop is a more powerful place to see something.” The Tokyo art critic Noi Sawaragi, who was a crucial early supporter of Murakami and a peer, told me that I was imposing distinctions that no Japanese would make. ”This back and forth doesn’t seem unnatural to us,” he said. ”We have had a long history of museums with department stores as a venue. It was thanks to the Seibu Museum, which no longer exists on the 12th floor of the Seibu department store, that I developed my knowledge of contemporary art. I saw Marcel Duchamp, Malevich and Man Ray in depth for the first time in that museum. I think it is the same for everyone of my generation. Downstairs you find dresses, bags and shoes, but on the 12th floor you find art.” Indeed, it is one of Murakami’s dearly held tenets that demarcations between fine art and popular merchandise are completely un-Japanese. The Japanese language didn’t even have a word for ”fine art” in 1868, when Japan embraced the West in the Meiji Restoration; only afterward did the country import this foreign ”art” notion and create a vocabulary for it. The blurring of high and low remains characteristic of Japanese society.
In his own career, Murakami has moved frictionlessly among his multiple roles as artist, curator, theorist, product designer, businessman and celebrity. Ever since a Chicago collector paid $567,500 at auction in 2003 for his fiberglass sculpture of a long-legged waitress, Murakami, now 43, has held the price record for a work by a contemporary Japanese artist. Meanwhile, his monumental sculptures and silk-screened balloons of original cartoon characters, displayed in 2001 at Grand Central Terminal and in 2003 at Rockefeller Center, have made him conspicuous in New York. More than anyone else, he has put modern Japan on the map of the contemporary art world. ”He’s a phenomenon, that’s for sure,” said Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. ”I think that his work embodies some interests that extend far beyond Japan. It’s a blend of fantasy and apocalypse and innocence. It’s all the disparate elements combined that speak to the moment. And it’s the way that he’s worked as much as the work itself — in the public realm with public sculpture, huge editions of objects, merchandising, working collaboratively. It’s a very ambitious and far-ranging project.”
While best known as an artist, Murakami may be even more interesting as a thinker. Five years ago he elaborated a theory under the clever rubric ”Superflat,” linking the flat picture planes of traditional Japanese paintings to the lack of any distinction between high and low in Japanese culture. On stylistic grounds he grouped together some traditional artists of the Edo period (1603-1868) with the creators of modern-day animated films, arguing that there were important formal similarities in the flatness of their work. Now, having analyzed Japanese pop culture aesthetically, he is turning his scrutiny to the function that superflatness might be serving in contemporary Japanese society. As the curator of an exhibition, ”Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture,” which opens this week at the Japan Society in New York, he surveys the geeky movement, known as otaku, that revolves around animated movies (anime), comic books (manga) and sexually suggestive figure models — and arrives at a provocative conclusion. Murakami maintains that respectable Japanese artists largely ignored the horrors of World War II and the humiliations of the postwar occupation, relinquishing the subjects to the otaku, who transported these tough realities into the realm of cartoon fantasy. In childlike animated forms, anguished truths were stripped of their historical context // a flattening process that conveniently released both the artist and the viewer from grappling with the contradictions of Japan’s wartime experience as predator and victim and postwar status as economic rival of, and political subordinate to, the United States.
Flat, colorful and rootless, the images of this popular subculture – the blank-faced Hello Kitty, the mutant monster Godzilla, the giant alien Ultraman, the cat-shaped guardian robot Doraemon — line up in no particular order, like icons on a computer screen. This cavalcade of weightless images in turn reverberates with contemporary viewers worldwide: anime and manga have become global signifiers of cool. Historically, to be sure, Japan is unique. Until a century and a half ago it was a society shut off from most of the world, and then, with gigantic gulps, it absorbed and adapted whatever it wanted, mostly from Europe, in an accelerated binge. The orgy ended with the catastrophe of World War II, after which Japan once again slammed the door on the past and started fresh with new, mostly American models. The grab-bag appropriation, inexact simulation and accelerated speed that characterize this process no longer appear peculiarly Japanese. They feel now. We live in an age when distinctions are arbitrary, originality is devalued, hierarchies are discredited and authenticity seems meaningless. Barely 40 years ago, Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein caused a transgressive stir by adopting commercial imagery from newspaper advertisements and comic strips as the subjects of paintings to hang in art galleries. How daring that was, and how dated it is. We are surrounded today by too many images to source or rank. While it would be fatuous to say that we are all Japanese now, we are surely all living in Murakami’s world.
At 8:50 every weekday morning, unless he is not in Tokyo, Murakami leads the staff of his art studio, Kaikai Kiki Company Ltd., in a round of calisthenics. Then the employees go off to their various jobs: refining sketches on the computer, daubing paint meticulously onto paintings and sculptures, fielding requests for commercial tie-ins or press interviews with their boss, negotiating licenses and other business contracts or coordinating with the branch office in Brooklyn. Warhol famously called his studio in Manhattan ”the Factory,” but that was a joke; although silk-screened images of flowers and Brillo boxes did flow out of it, the silver-walled, amphetamine-pumped clubhouse — with its entertainments, intrigues and exquisite costumes — resembled an 18th-century court in Versailles more than it did an auto plant. Yet it’s no joke to call Kaikai Kiki a factory. Murakami’s 60 employees punch in with computerized timecards, and the company has training manuals for new hires. The hours are regular — and long. One daily ritual is the question-and-answer period, in which staff members book a slot of specified duration to ask the chief a question; when I attended, 14 had requested interviews, typically of two minutes each.
The Kaikai Kiki factory complex is situated in a drab suburban district an hour from central Tokyo. One of the little buildings, without toilet or bath, is Murakami’s home, in which a sleeping bag serves as a bed. Next to the shed that houses Murakami is an even smaller one that houses potted cactuses. Hybridizing cactus from seed is Murakami’s hobby, one for which he has little time. Apparently he has no time for romantic or family attachments, either. ”He makes art and sleeps,” said Dana Friis-Hansen, executive director of the Austin Museum of Art in Texas and co-curator of a 1998 Murakami exhibition at Bard College in New York. ”Some curators are really frustrated, because he’ll ask for and usually get the right to sleep in the gallery while he is setting up. He’ll bring assistants and sleeping bags, and they’ll cook noodles there.”
The son of a taxi driver and a housewife, Murakami grew up in Tokyo, then attended Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, the country’s most prestigious arts institution. He holds a Ph.D. in nihonga — the refined hybrid of European and traditional Japanese painting that was invented in the late 19th century. Nihonga, in which traditional resins and pigments are employed to render likenesses of bouquets and landscapes, is a rarefied branch of present-day Japanese art. All the time he was practicing it, Murakami said, he wished instead that he had the talent to draw the manga and anime of otaku culture.
The word ”otaku” is usually translated as ”geek” or ”nerd,” but its more precise meaning is steeped in the particularities of Japanese society and language. Literally, the word means ”your household.” It is a way to refer to another person in conversation without implying either superior or lesser social status. Employed by postwar Japanese housewives, the usage was adopted by the fans — all right, call them geeks — who became obsessed with the minutiae of a particular bit of popular culture. Isolated in their individual homes, these youths shared a passion for the television programming — ”Astro Boy,” ”Ultraman” and so forth — that expanded rapidly in the 1960’s. They organized around their fetishistic fascinations to form otaku subcultures, whose members come together periodically in large conventions to discuss, exhibit and trade the objects of their highly focused affections.
The typical otaku is a young male, and some of the manga and the plastic figures are explicitly sexual, often blatantly pedophiliac; even when they aren’t, the otaku tends to relate to his collection, with caresses and ministrations, as to a girlfriend — if he had a girlfriend. (A Web-site message board heavily frequented by otaku was known as ”The number of years I have not had a girlfriend is the same as my age.”) In its defiance of the mores of proper Japanese society, otaku culture was disreputable from the outset. It became much more so following a notorious criminal case in 1989, when an otaku named Tsutomu Miyazaki was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of four preadolescent girls. ”When Miyazaki’s room was revealed to the public, the mass media announced that it was otaku space,” Murakami once told an interviewer. ”However, it was just like my room. Actually, my mother was very surprised to see his room and said: ‘His room is like yours. Are you O.K.?’ Of course, I was O.K. In fact, all of my friends’ rooms were similar to his, too.” Murakami added that Miyazaki was only ”different from us” because he ”videotaped dead bodies of little girls he killed.”
When the administrators of the Japan Society in New York asked Murakami if he would like to curate an exhibition in their gallery, he resolved to undertake an exploration of the origins of otaku culture, a subject that, he said, is sketchily understood even in Japan. In many of the classic manga and anime stories, the plot revolves around a bomb or radiation device that devastates Tokyo. ”I thought, Why does otaku culture so many times have an explosion that looks like an atomic bomb?” he told me, as we sat at the counter of an elegant sushi bar in Tokyo. ”I was trying to find out why otaku people are always repeating the same scene and why I was so interested in it myself.” And there was a related question that intrigued him: ”Why do Japanese people hate otaku culture?” He concluded that otaku raised ”a mirror” to a reality that the larger culture preferred to ignore. Like many other Japanese intellectuals of his generation, he deplores both his country’s militarist past and what he sees as its acquiescent present. ”Otaku culture is handicapped reality,” Murakami said. ”We have to realize we are handicapped, and we don’t want to realize it. We know the U.S. is our father. We thought we were children, but we are handicapped people. We need help.”
The crystallizing moment for Murakami arrived when he came up with a name for the show. In October, Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, was pressing him for an exhibition title and offered a suggestion. ”She gave us ‘Japanese Pop Culture Explosion,’ a really long title,” he recalled. ”I hate that.” Many Americans know that the atomic bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nicknamed, respectively, ”Little Boy” and ”Fat Man.” But few remember the testimony that Gen. Douglas MacArthur gave to a Senate committee in 1951 upon completing a tour of more than five years as Supreme Commander of the Allied powers in Japan. MacArthur stated that at the time of the war, when ”measured by the standards of modern civilization,” the Japanese people were ”like a boy of 12.” The remark ignited headlines across Japan, with furious resentment superseding the tributes that had hailed MacArthur’s departure. For a show on otaku culture that would demonstrate how Japanese artists responded to their nation’s wartime suffering and postwar subordination, Murakami realized that the title ”Little Boy” was perfect. As he told me this story, he sugarcoated the underlying anger and bitterness, as he does so often both in his conversation and his art, with a joke. ”Little Boy and Fat Man — now both things are true exactly of the Japanese people,” he said, patting his potbelly and ordering an extra helping of sushi.
At the beginning of his career, Murakami appeared to be content with the lot of most successful contemporary artists: to create work that is admired by critics and desired by wealthy collectors but leaves the general public baffled or hostile. He was constructing conceptual pieces similar to the art being made in the West. Among those early works, which began attracting attention in the early 90’s, was ”Polyrhythm,” a seven-foot-high slab of yellow resin, minimalist in form, on which many toy United States infantry soldiers climb. Another colossal piece, which he titled ”Sea Breeze” after a men’s fragrance, was fabricated of steel plates that open automatically to reveal, like figures in a shrine, a ring of high-intensity floodlights. Probably his most talked-about youthful work was the 1991 ”Randoseru Project.” For it, he collected hides of endangered or exotic species — whale, hippopotamus, cobra and so on — and had them brightly dyed and fabricated into the distinctive book bags, called randoseru, that Japanese schoolchildren have carried on their backs over the last century. Koyama, his Tokyo dealer, who has known Murakami since their university days, recalls that the project began with Murakami’s desire to construct an object out of whale skin at a time when Japan, controversially, refused to join an international ban on commercial whaling. Someone suggested the shape of the randoseru. Behind its cuteness, the bag has bellicose overtones: it was adopted by the Japanese in the late 19th century on a Western military model. Murakami has kept an impish distance from the elaborate commentary the work inspired from critics. ”’Randoseru,’ my early work, got a really good reaction from the art scene,” he told me. ”But I hate that reaction. It looks like political art, but I am just joking.”
In 1994, with a fellowship from the Manhattan-based Asian Cultural Council, Murakami came to live in New York. During that year he started to re-emphasize his Japaneseness. Upon returning home he began to create objects that looked as if they were applying for admittance to the otaku world even as he also tried to cast an unfamiliar critical spotlight on this insular subculture.
For two years, Murakami researched the concept and execution of ”Miss Ko2” (pronounced ”ko-ko”), the sculpture that would eventually fascinate Western collectors and set a record at Christie’s New York. Collaborating with the designers at Kaiyodo, the pre-eminent manufacturer of figures in Japan, he designed a high-breasted, stiletto-heeled, vapidly smiling blonde in a skimpy waitress uniform. Made of fiberglass, ”Miss Ko2” is six feet tall, commanding attention in an art gallery but arousing anxious displeasure among otaku, who like their figures small and submissive.
Murakami provoked the otaku again in 1997 with his next figure, which he titled ”Hiropon,” after a popular recreational drug in postwar Japan. His idea was that the erotic pretty-girl figures known as bishojo were addictive for the otaku who collected them. Once again he made his figure big (seven feet high), but this time she was anything but vapid. Inspired by a magazine cover he had seen while attending a comic-book otaku gathering, of a bare-breasted woman with a nipple shaped like a penis, he designed a nude (although, in keeping with otaku preferences, one lacking genitalia or pubic hair) who is squeezing from her gargantuan breasts and oversize nipples a stream of milk that swirls behind her like a jump rope. The following year he created a male companion piece, ”My Lonesome Cowboy,” of a masturbating naked man whose ejaculation floats lasso-style in front of him. Both ”Hiropon” and ”My Lonesome Cowboy” have the big eyes and grins that are found on popular children’s anime and manga characters like Astro Boy (the Japanese name is Mighty Atom) and Sailor Moon. While otaku people generally ignored the ”Cowboy” figure, they loathed ”Hiropon.” ”’Hiropon’ is like a satire, and these figures are the object of affection for otaku people,” said Masahiko Asano, an otaku expert whom Murakami has enlisted as a consultant. ”Once Mr. Murakami asked me why his characters cannot be the object of affection. I said: ‘When you see Miss Ko2, can you masturbate to her? If not, it can’t be.’ He said, ‘No, I couldn’t do that.”’
In 1999, at an otaku festival, Murakami released ”Second Mission Project Ko2,” a three-piece sculptural installation that depicts a favorite otaku theme — a young woman morphing into an airplane. Triumphantly, it was praised by both art critics and otaku. In hindsight, however, this work was a coda. Murakami’s sculptures of sexually charged figures, difficult for viewers and expensive for fabricators, form a discrete chapter in his artistic career and his infatuation with otaku. Although this work may be the most interesting he has yet produced, he was dissatisfied. He wanted his characters to be objects of affection. He was a pop artist who longed to be popular.
If you were to draw a map of Japanese popular culture (a map like one from the Magellan era, grossly oversimplified but still useful), you might say that male-oriented otaku culture lies at one pole and that the female domain of kawaii (cuteness) is situated at the other. In the mid-90’s, Murakami set sail from otaku toward kawaii. Even while he was investigating otaku model figures, he was already researching cute cartoon characters. Such characters, of course, had been a mainstay of Pop Art in the United States since the early 60’s. Warhol used images of Mickey Mouse. Lichtenstein raided the funny pages. Murakami, however, did something else. He created his own characters.
His first, Mr. DOB, got his name from an abbreviation of a nonsensical phrase that alluded to many things — a popular television entertainer, a sexual innuendo, the indigenous Ainu people and who knows what else. The phrase also translates, more or less, as ”Why? Why?” Since this could serve as Murakami’s motto, it was a good choice for a character who became his alter ego. Initially, the DOB character resembled Mickey, but over time he evolved, first turning toothy and fierce, then becoming terribly cute — kawaii. ”In 1994, Mr. DOB had an ironic content,” said the critic Midori Matsui. ”It became something different later on — almost like Murakami’s own house brand. He was always interested in competing with popular art on a real popular level. The things he did up to ‘S.M.P. Ko2’ were way too intellectual for his purpose. He wanted to become his own industry.”
With his customary devotion to research, Murakami analyzed the principles of kawaii. ”I found a system for what is a cute character,” he said. On a whiteboard at Kaikai Kiki, he drew me a circle with the top half blank and the bottom half containing two dots for eyes and a smiling mouth. ”In the kawaii system, this scale is very important,” he said. Over the last decade, Murakami has released numerous cute characters: among them, Mr. Pointy, smiling flowers, colorful mushrooms and the good and bad toddlers Kaikai and Kiki. Emblematic of his reorientation from confrontation to cuteness, he changed the name of his studio in 2001 from the Hiropon Factory to Kaikai Kiki. He said he hopes to expand his audience by making animated films with his characters, and he has already opened a six-person animation facility in Tokyo and leased space in Los Angeles. (He plans to include an animated film in a midcareer retrospective of his work, to be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007.)
The apotheosis of kawaii culture is Hello Kitty, the big-eyed, beribboned, expressionless pussycat character that stokes a billion-dollar-a-year business for the Sanrio company. Created in 1974, the Kitty character took off in 1985, first in Japan and then internationally. When I asked Matsui how she accounted for Kitty’s popularity, she practically shrieked in response: ”Because I think humanism is dead! Because people are weak and scared.” In a more measured tone, she added: ”It’s easy to accept Kitty because it’s so dumb and expressionless. It doesn’t demand that you make any reference.”
For an authoritative view, I paid a call at Sanrio on Yuko Yamaguchi, who has been the chief designer of Hello Kitty for 25 years. With long hennaed hair and wearing brown artificial-leather pants, she didn’t look the least bit kawaii herself. When she discussed the enduring popularity of Kitty, she was all business. Hoping to gauge how far Murakami has gone in his quest for wide popularity, I asked her to rate Kaikai, the sweeter, rabbit-costumed half of the Kaikai Kiki toddlers, on the kawaii meter. She was troubled by Kaikai’s smiling mouth. ”In most Sanrio characters, we don’t express an emotion through the mouth,” she said. ”With Kitty, you don’t even see a mouth.” She credited this mouthlessness for much of Kitty’s popularity. ”When someone feels blue or depressed, they may want the character to sympathize with their feeling or to get angry with them or to offer encouragement,” she said. ”Without a clear expression of the mouth, this is possible. It can be interpreted in different ways.”
Murakami understands the infantilism that underlies the Hello Kitty phenomenon. Like otaku culture, kawaii culture for him is an expression of Japan’s postwar impotence. (In a photograph with the strapping General MacArthur, the diminutive, once divine Emperor Hirohito looked very kawaii.) However, Murakami is also designing characters that for those unacquainted with his analysis seem simply — and irresistibly — kawaii. It’s a delicate balancing act, reaching a mass audience while maintaining a critical distance. ”I created Mr. DOB for a really serious reason, but girls would say, ‘Oh, cute,”’ he told me. ”Japanese don’t like serious art. But if I can transform cute characters into serious art, they will love my piece.” The early DOB’s were often distorted and belligerent or combined with jagged lines and distressed surfaces that alluded to traditional Japanese painting. More recently, they seem simply cute…
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