Last Updated 28 Jan 2021


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Bijutsu Fine art Kindai Bijutsu Modern art Manga Manga are comics and print cartoons, in Japanese and conforming to the style developed in Japan in the late 20th century.

Otaku Known as a mass media product presenting Japanese Culture, anime, has gained an increasing exposure and acceptance overseas during the 1990s.The term otaku, which was coined in 1982 and came into popular usage by 1989, is usually translated as ‘geek’ or ‘aficionado,’ and refers to a group of people who ‘take refuge in a world of fantasy, drinking in the images supplied by the modern media – usually from television, magazines and comic books, but also computer images or video games’ (Baral 1999: 22). The etymology of "otaku" was drawn upon the work of Volker Grassmuck in his seminal otaku-studies article: I'm alone, but not lonely": Japanese Otaku-Kids colonize the Realm of Information and Media, A Tale of Sex and Crime from a faraway Place. Superflat art “The world of the future might be like Japan is today – Superflat. Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional. It is particularly apparent in the arts that this sensibility has been flowing steadily beneath the surface of Japanese history … [Superflat] is an original concept that links the past with the present and the future. ” (Murakami, 2000: 9)Superflat is a concept and theory of art created by the contemporary Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami.

The Superflat (2000) exhibition in Tokyo marked the launch of this new aesthetic which took contemporary Japanese art and identity into a globalised milieu of critical thought. The exhibition, which was curated by Murakami and subsequently travelled to the United States, featured the work of a range of established and emerging artists drawn from art and commercial genres in Japan. As an essential part of Murakami’s political strategy, Superflat was always designed to travel globally.An elaborate, bilingual catalogue Super Flat (Murakami, 2000), which included Murakami’s manifesto, A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art, accompanied the exhibition. In this manifesto Murakami affirmed that the Superflat exhibitions were created to provide a cultural-historical context for the new form of art that he was proposing, and which was specifically exported for Western audiences. Superflat art, as a cultural text, is intricately enmeshed in the tensions between the location and representation of local/global cultural identities.These identities, while proffering resistance through the assertion of difference, are also formed as part of the processes of globalization rather than in strict opposition to it (Robertson, 1995).

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In producing Superflat for Western art markets and Japanese art worlds, Murakami addresses existing discursive knowledge of Japanese art, history and popular culture, while simultaneously presenting a new variant of those identities. In this way, Superflat is part of the politics of commodification and expression of cultural difference generated in global consumption.Murakami’s Superflat concept identifies a new aesthetic emerging from the creative expressions produced in Japanese contemporary art, anime (Japanese animation), manga (graphic novels), video games, fashion and graphic design. Superflat is presented as a challenge to the institutions and practices of bijutsu (fine art), which Murakami argues are an incomplete import of Western concepts. Murakami is specifically referring to the modern institutions of kindai bijutsu (modern art) that were adopted during the Meiji period (1868–1912) as part of Japan’s process of modernization and Westernization.To Murakami, the innovation and originality of post-1945 forms of commercial culture represent a continuation of the innovations of the Edo (1600–1867) visual culture. Murakami problematically argues that Edo culture represents a more ‘original’ cultural tradition, because it was a time of restricted foreign contact.

At the same time, Murakami self-consciously uses Western art markets and the popular appeal of Japanese consumer culture to propose the Superflat alternative. That is, Murakami utilizes the Western popular imaginings of Japanese culture as a hyper-consumeristic, postmodern layhouse (Morley & Robins, 1995: 147–173) in constructing Superflat. SUPERFLATNESS: GLOBALIZING STRATEGIES IN ART MARKET As the interaction between social groups has become increasingly globalized, the meaning-making and expressivities associated with ‘art’ have also become progressively more engaged through national and transnational gradients (Papastergiadis & Artspace, 2003). In particular, the formation of identity and expressive modes in a national genealogy becomes problematic within a globalizing cultural sphere.Many artists struggle to find the binary position of balancing East and West cultures, while Takashi Murakami, contemporary Japanese artist, with his theory of Superflat art, worked out his way in this dilemma. He provides a useful case study of the strategies artists can employ to negotiate cultural and artistic identities ‘in between’ this binary. This paper investigates the Superflat concept and analyses Murakami’s art works to expose the tensions and dialogues regarding cultural identity and commodification that are produced by their global circulation.

The first section maps Murakami’s strategy in constructing Superflat and contextualizes this in relation to discourses of Japanese national-cultural identity. The second section applies this theorization by analyzing the visual codes of Murakami’s figure sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy. This figure sculpture is part of a series in which Murakami combined the aesthetic codes and markers of otaku culture, particularly the prominence of anime and manga characters, with various art historical references.This piece demonstrates the multifarious local/global codes and cultures that Superflat art engages. Global Flows and the Soy Sauce Strategy Globalization creates spaces in which mobile elements interact with both positive and negative effects. Three key issues emerge in contemporary theorizations of globalization that are relevant to this discussion: firstly, the problem of how to retain the concept of local/national cultural particularity and to concurrently recognize the onvergences and overlaps between cultures in a global context (Robertson, 1995); secondly, how to recognize the value in cultural difference as a tool of critical (oppositional) agency (Fisher, 2003) and acknowledge that difference can also become a commodity in the global market place (Hall, 1991); and thirdly, to acknowledge the dominance of Western cultural, political and economic imperatives in globalization (Hardt & Negri, 2000), but also to recognize that it cannot be reduced to this condition (Held et al. , 1999).

Consequently, concerns and celebrations are generated by the increasing fragmentation of national and cultural identities (Morley&Robins, 1995). In response to this process of deterritorializing identity, impulses arise to reclaim local and national identities in a form of resistance (Hall, 1995). This resistance is complicated because it is formed in relation to the transnational imaginings of the Self and the Other, stimulated by the constant circulation of people and mediated images through globalizations (Appadurai, 1996).These are irresolvable struggles and they demonstrate how globalization contributes to rather than eliminates incommensurability (Ang, 2003). Thus, while cultural identities can become territorialized and demarcated, for instance as ‘Japanese’, they are also challenged by the processes of deterritorialization activated through interaction and exchange. The meaning of ‘Japanese’ is therefore open to re-articulation by both global and local forces allowing new strategic identities to emerge.These processes are evident in Murakami’s “soy sauce strategy”.

Murakami demarcates the identity of Superflat as Japanese by proposing it as an affirmation of a Pop Art aesthetic that is “born from Japan” and distinct from Western art: a type of post-Pop (Murakami, 2005: 152–153). Murakami asserts Superflat as an example of the current influence of Japanese culture globally and as a model for a future aesthetic, thereby identifying the ‘Otherness’ of Superflat in a positive way.Even though Murakami acknowledges that this sensibility emerges from the transformations arising from the influences of Western culture, he simultaneously reaffirms the originality of Superflat as a Japanese sensibility. This is what he refers to as his “soy sauce” strategy. Japanese contemporary art has a long history of trying to hide the soy sauce. Perhaps they will strengthen the flavor to please the foreign palette, or perhaps they’ll simply throw the soy sauce out the window and unconditionally embrace the tastes of French or Italian cuisine, becoming the Westerners whose model of contemporary art they follow ..

.I see the need to create a universal taste – a common tongue – without cheating myself and my Japanese core ... I continue to blend seasonings ...

I may have mixed in the universal forms and presentations of French, Italian, Chinese, or other ethnic cuisines – and I am vigilant in my search for their best points – but the central axis of my creation is stable ... at its core, my standard of ‘beauty’ is one cultivated by the Japan that has been my home since my birth in 1962. (Kaikaikiki Co.Ltd & Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2001: 130) This essential Japanese identity of Superflat is reinforced by the ways in which Murakami connects (visually and ideologically) the kawaii (cute) forms of anime and manga with the playful aesthetic of Edo period artists and the two-dimensional formal properties of Japanese screen painting. This foundation is then used to propose Superflat as an alternate lineage of Japanese visual culture, one that breaks away from the canon of kindai bijutsu and Western art history.

Edo functions in Superflat as the determinant of its cultural authenticity – that is, as the DNA of Superflat (Murakami, 2000: 25). Edo is presented as the site of Japan’s cultural tradition and subsequently as a symbol of its Japaneseness. This is a convention from modern Japanese discourses in which Edo becomes the repository of nostalgic yearnings for a pre-modern, traditional Japan (Ivy, 1995).In the late 1980s and early 1990s this was extended to become part of the debates on Japan’s (post)modernity; postmodern cultural expressions in Japan were considered to be a revival of Edo concepts and practices and thus particularly ‘indigenous’ to Japan (Karatani, 1997). However, as Gluck (1998) points out, the definition of authentic and traditional Japanese expression in relation to a fixed point of origin in Edo culture has been heavily challenged. Therefore, Murakami’s use of Edo to mark the culturally authentic transmission of the Superflat aesthetic should be treated with caution.At the same time, Murakami has emphasized that he is not presenting Superflat as the definitive interpretation of Japanese art nor does he claim a unified identity for Japan: Unfortunately, I can never give ‘Japan’ a fixed shape.

I cannot meet my real ‘self’. Nor can I discern what ‘art’ really is ... I thought I could solve the problem by lining up a series of images in a powerful procession that words could not clarify. (Murakami, 2000: 9) Even this position can be critiqued.Murakami self-consciously demonstrates his awareness of the historical interaction between Japan and the West and stresses the hybrid history of Superflat.

However, he also tends to celebrate Japan’s skill in assimilating and domesticating foreign influences, echoing other discourses on Japan’s hybridity as a national-cultural trait (Tobin, 1992), which paradoxically reconstructs Japan’s hybridity as an essential identity. Murakami’s intention to create an epistemological context for Superflat is explicitly part of his aim to sell work in international art markets: First, gain recognition on site (New York). Furthermore, adjust the flavoring to meet the needs of the venue. 2 With this recognition as my parachute, I will make my landing back in Japan. Slightly adjust the flavorings until they are Japanese. Or perhaps entirely modify the works to meet Japanese tastes. 3 Back overseas, into the fray.

This time, I will make a presentation that doesn’t shy away from my true soy sauce nature, but is understandable to my audience. (Kaikaikiki Co. Ltd & Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2001:131)The impulse in Superflat towards the affirmation of a national-cultural aesthetic can be considered as a form of self-Orientalism: an identity formation that is constructed in relation to the Western Oriental gaze (Said, 1995). While self-Orientalism has been considered (although not specifically in relation to Superflat) as an empowered strategy, because it appropriates the West’s gaze of Japan and re-packages it for the same audience (Mitchell, 2000), others have considered it collusive to Orientalism and a continuation of the Japan/West binary construction (Iwabuchi, 1994).This self-Oriental identity is complicated by a number of factors. First, Superflat does echo conventional discursive constructions of a Japan/West binary, which obscures the connections and power relations in this structure. In particular, Superflat can also be interpreted as being part of the discourses on Japanese identity, particularly the emergence of nihonjinron and postmodernism post-1970s in relation to Japan’s economic and technological influences (Befu, 2001).

There was a tendency in both these strains of discourse to emphasize Japan’s national identity as unique and different from the West and the East.Secondly, while Murakami acknowledges the Western influences on the Superflat aesthetic, his simultaneous transposing of this hybrid identity into a reinforcement of a Japanese identity, characterized by cultural assimilation and hybridization, reinforces a unified national-cultural identity. This identity is supported by the references between Superflat and already existing discursive constructions of Japanese culture as post-modern and the interpretation of the two-dimensional properties of Japanese art, which will be discussed later in the paper.Thirdly, Superflat is also part of ongoing trade relations and cross-fertilizations of visual culture forms between Japan and the West particularly since the late nineteenth century. These include the adoption of bijutsu in the Meiji period, the popular consumption of Japanese visual culture in the West (in late nineteenth century Japonisme and since the 1990s with the consumption of anime and manga), and the post-1945 influx of commercial culture from the United States and its subsequent impact on the development of the anime and manga industries (Kinsella, 2000).In some ways, the self-Orientalism of Superflat can be interpreted as a post-colonial defensive reaction. Superflat is presented by Murakami as a localized expression of cultural uniqueness resisting the global hegemony of Western art and transcending the imported colonialist history of bijutsu by presenting “icons of excessive otherness” (Matsui, 2001: 48).

This resistance, in turn, strategically uses identity as a commodity in Western art markets.By explicitly emphasizing the differences of Superflat, and Superflat as Japanese, Murakami becomes open to criticism that he is merely providing a futuristic Orientalist spectacle for Western audiences (Shimada, 2002: 188–189). Furthermore, the ever-present danger with this position is that the centrality of the United States and Europe is re-asserted rather than challenged. Murakami explicitly reinforces this centrality through his statements regarding the importance of his profile in New York, London and Paris (Kelmachter, 2002: 76).Murakami’s strategy of merging artistic expression and the commercial imperatives of Orientalism also echoes the export art of the late nineteenth century in which new works were created for foreign markets, according to the dictates of those markets (Conant, 1991: 82–84). Export objects were deliberately constructed to appeal to the taste for Japonisme that was fashionable in Europe and the United States at the time. Murakami’s affirmation of Superflat as a Japanese-made model for the future also reiterates the recent rhetoric on Japan’s global cultural power in relation to the export of anime and manga (McGray, 2002).

These discourses emphasize the symbolic (and subsequent economic) capital of the Japaneseness of anime and manga texts and they deliberately emphasize the commodity potentials of self- Orientalism. Murakami draws attention to these politics in the Superflat exhibition Coloriage (Coloring) at the Foundation Cartier by referring to it as “post-Japonisme” (Kelmachter, 2002: 103–104), thereby both connecting with the past market in Japanese art and suggesting a new contemporary context for the consumption of Superflat art.However, to reduce Superflat to a collusive Orientalism, or to see it as just a commodification of identity in a pejorative sense, misinterprets the dynamics in play. Murakami is both proffering resistance as well as marketing his work strategically. Firstly, Murakami articulates his identity through the exhibition structures of the West as well as through conventional signifiers of Japanese aesthetics in order to establish his profile and to sell his work.Yet he also acknowledges the ambivalences of his own position and the playfulness of this global soy sauce flavoring: In the worldview that holds delicate flavoring as the only concept of ‘beauty’ with any value, heavy flavouring is taboo, and too much stimulation is definitely problematic..

. In order to create something that is understandable both to the West and Japan, what is needed is an ambivalent flavor and presentation ... . (Kaikaikiki Co. Ltd & Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2001: 131)Furthermore, dominant scholarly arguments on the popular consumption of anime and manga outside Japan hold that these forms express plural cultural identities and, as Allison (2000) shows, are detached from specific representations of space and place.

This suggests that the consumption of Superflat, like that of anime and manga, is not simply based on a desire for reflected images of Japaneseness as a cultural Other; rather, it offers audiences a flexibility of alternate identities, free from specific geo-cultural connections.It can also be argued that a critical factor in the reception of Murakami’s works in the United States and Europe has been the familiarity of the Superflat aesthetic to anime and manga as part of a common rather than Orientalised visual vocabulary. Superflat echoes the paradox of affirming the non-nationality of texts, while also presenting them as expressions of national-cultural identity. However, there is another way to explain this contradiction of Superflat between the affirmation of non-national and specific cultural identities.The critical theorist Yoda Tomiko (2000) presents contemporary anime forms as a useful example of a coterminous fluidity between local codes that are interchangeable and coexistent with non-local elements. Elements in the text can be swapped around and adapted for different audiences, and these elements are simultaneously collated with non-specific elements drawn from a wide variety of sources; therefore, the overall form remains transportable as well as expressing cultural proximity.While this process of adaptation is not new, what Yoda indicates is that it is increasingly becoming a normative process within the logic of postmodern consumer society.

The local identity expressed in Superflat utilizes the connections with Edo and anime and manga culture to articulate its cultural specificity and yet it also expresses a postmodern fluidity and self-reflexivity that enables it to be globally circulated. The following section demonstrates the multifarious local/global codes and cultures in Murakami’s figure sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy. Superflat IdentityTakashi Murakami may have been the happiest at Sotheby’s Auction on May 14th. My Lonesome Cowboy, his larger-than-life sculpture of a boy waving an ejaculate lasso, brought in $15. 2 million — quintupling the artist's previous record at auction. Just like what Alexandra Munro has written, “Murakami does not merely appropriate the manga and anime based worlds of otaku subculture; he operates within them. His lushly bright, mutant characters, all of which have names, act coveted by convenience store consumers as much as they are sought after by international art community.

Murakami’s works always act in the multiple spaces in and between Japan and the West, referencing there intertwined relations. My Lonesome Cowboy can be linked to a number of familiar aesthetic forms from both Western and Japanese art history, thus it is a field of knowledge operating both within and between the social, cultural and aesthetic conditions of East and West. My Lonesome Cowboy is characterized by a large lasso of ejaculate reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s splash paintings in the late 1940s.The confident masturbatory pose of the figure can be interpreted as a parodic and sexualized reference to the phallo-centric ideology of Western Modernism, in which the autonomy and expressive subjectivity (as well as the masculinity) of artists such as Pollock was celebrated. The title itself, My Lonesome Cowboy, also references the heroism and romanticism of the iconic image of the cowboy, which was celebrated in relation to the New York Abstract Expressionist painters, and was parodied in the homo-erotica of Andy Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys (1969).The stream of ejaculation fluid is both an exaggerated and grotesque parody of otaku (hard-core anime and manga fans) imaginings and masturbatory activities and a parody of the ‘unique’ stroke of the brush of the artist. The overt and ironic decorativeness of the fiberglass splash subverts the modernist ideology of the unique mark of the artist’s hand as an expression of interior subjectivity in a manner that is reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s series of screen-prints, Brushstrokes, created in the mid to late 1960s.

These references are then combined with recognizable Japanese aesthetic markers. For example, the Dragon Ball Z character Goku is the model for the head of the cowboy; the splash of ejaculate is also reminiscent of the static dynamism of Hokusai’s ukiyo-e print View of Mount Fuji through High Waves off Kanagawa (ca. 1829–1833). The standing pose of the figure with the power and energy concentrated in the hips thrust forward, accentuated by the expulsion of liquid from the penis, is something that has also been specifically linked to the style of character pose developed in anime (Kaikaikiki Co.Ltd & Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2001: 96). This is contrasted to the Western comic hero pose in which the concentration of power and muscular strength is emphasized in the pectoral muscles (96). The sense of dynamism between stasis and movement in My Lonesome Cowboy can also be linked to various forms of compositional structures in Japanese screen-paintings and anime.

One of the key features of early Japanese television animation is an aesthetic based on the frozen pose, in which a figure can leap in the air and freeze the pose, unfixed from gravity.Part of the rationality behind the frozen moment in animation was a response to budget constraints and efficient production processes; by freezing the frame and allowing the dialogue to continue fewer frames of animated movement were needed for the narrative (Lamarre, 2002: 335). As a stylistic tendency, the technique of freezing the action in animation relies on selecting the most dramatic or aesthetic moment to freeze, creating a dramatic pause before the action (2002: 335–336).Therefore, what is evident is that Murakami simultaneously articulates Japanese and Western aesthetic markers in My Lonesome Cowboy. While these references can be individually demarcated and identified, there is also an interchangeable flexibility that is addressed. More specifically, what this means is that the splash of semen can simultaneously reference Pollock, Lichtenstein, Hokusai and Kanada. Thus, it becomes a fluid and slippery signifier.

This can be explained as one of the reasons for the global prominence and popularity of Superflat and Murakami.Furthermore, the art historical and popular cultural references would be considered relatively conventional markers for audiences conversant with these texts. Many of the Japanese works in the Superflat catalogue are held in Western collections, including Hokusai’s Great Wave. Murakami’s works are therefore characterized by a particular inter-determinacy, which enables him to manipulate the Japanese identity of the works while also utilizing the familiarity of the visual references for Western audiences. This trategy is further complicated by the overlapping historical aesthetic relationship between Japan and the West. First, the concept of Superflatness, as an aesthetic of two-dimensionality, reinforces the Western image of Japan as a culture of surface. The development of the flat surface, which has been interpreted by Clement Greenberg as the underpinning aesthetic realization of Western modern painting, was influenced by Japanese art, particularly ukiyo-e prints, in the nineteenth century (Evett, 1982: ix–x).

In particular, an aesthetic of two-dimensionality was identified as a distinctive feature of Japanese art in late nineteenth century Europe (1982: 30). 13 In contrast to the Western discursive construct of Japanese art as inherently two-dimensional, Western practices of linear perspective by this time had already influenced Japanese art. 14 Secondly, because anime and manga are increasingly familiar to consumers outside of Japan, particularly since their export in the 1990s, they have become part of the database of visual aesthetics of artists and fans outside of Japan (Craig, 2000: 7).The complex visual cultural relationships between Japan, United States and European art are more politically intertwined than these explicit and obvious references imply because they are influenced by ideologies and constructions of national identity. The image of Japan as a culture of surface continued into the twentieth century and was translated from the mid-1980s into the confirmation of Japan’s post modernity: Japan as a culture of surface was now celebrated (Barthes, 1982; Field, 1997) and it was constructed (arguably) as the epitome of post-modernity (Miyoshi and Harootunian). 5 This was contrasted to Western modernist discourse of the surface as a manifestation of interior subjectivity. Postmodernism presented a challenge to this concept of originality and interior/exterior distinctions through theories of simulacrum, pastiche and the collapsing of surface/depth models as developed by Baudrillard (1983), Jameson (1991), and Virilio (1991).

Even the discourses that emphasized Japan’s creative skill in domesticating foreign imports (Tobin, 1992) as a contrast to the earlier pejorative concept of mimicry reinforced the image of Japan as an appropriator of different styles or surfaces.While the distinction between surface and depth is not absent in Japan, the duality between surface and depth in Western modern epistemology (and even in subsequent discourses that challenge it) is not necessarily expressed using those dichotomous terms in Japanese culture; rather, the surface is considered to be meaningful and creative. For example, the art historian Tsuji Nobuo (2002: 18) identifies the decorative surface as providing a link between the ordinary and everyday sphere and the extraordinary metaphysical realm.In this way, the decorative surface does not ‘lack’ meaning but is active as an intermediary expression and aesthetic. Hendry (1993) also identifies the importance of ‘wrapping’ in Japanese culture, in which the external layers, whether they be clothing, architecture or gifts, form the critical meaning structure. Wrapping operates as a method of accumulating ‘layers of meaning’ that are not normally present in the unwrapped object (1993: 17). This process inverts the Western philosophical privileging of the core (the object inside the wrapping) as the primary site of meaning and the external wrapping as obscuring the object.

In fact Hendry argues that the meaning of the enclosed object and the layers of wrapping are conceptually embedded in each other and cannot be separated (1993: 17). While flatness and the emphasis on surface quality and decoration in Superflat art can thus be considered an exploitation of the Western construct of Japan as a culture of surface aesthetics, it can also be interpreted as an assertion of the creative value of the surface in Japanese culture. In this latter interpretation Superflatness becomes a unique aesthetic form that articulates multiple and active spaces, not the erasure or reduction of meaning.The concept of active flatness and continual transformation is a useful approach to understanding the Superflat aesthetic. It is difficult to differentiate a singular point of origin or a stable and unified subject in the multiple cultural identities embedded in My Lonesome Cowboy. Such is the shared history and cross-fertilization of aesthetic forms that these multiple layers of references and aesthetic histories of Japan and the United States/Europe present a significant complexity to the explicit identification of these references as Japanese or Western.Furthermore, to presume that they will even be decoded as signifying geo-cultural aesthetic territories is equally problematic.

It is evident that Murakami’s explicitly playful references act as heterogeneous and malleable signifiers of identity, and thus can be readily interpreted as a postmodern expression of multiplicity. Furthermore, the inter-textual references to Japanese art history, Western art history, and imagined constructions of Japanese identity, play to the knowingness of audiences. The Westernization of Superflat and its Japaneseness articulate two forms that can be accessed by Murakami from his database of codes.

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