NEW YORK — Murakami-mania hit New York last week as the “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture” exhibition at the Japan Society opened to much media fanfare.
But the scope of this ambitious project and the “Murakami influence,” as the New York Times dubbed it, is not only limited to the confines of the Japan Society. For the next three months the purveyors of what Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, calls “Japan’s psyche” will infiltrate the New York subway systems and shopping districts with posters and public art and inject a dose of the kawaii (cute) into this least kawaii of cities.
Curated by Takashi Murakami, the bad boy of Japanese “neo-pop” art (he of Roppongi Hills and Louis Vuitton fame), “Little Boy” is the final installment of his “Superflat” trilogy.
The trilogy project, launched in 2001 with the “Superflat” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was followed by the second “Coloriage” exhibition at the Fondation Cartier de L’art Contemporain in Paris a year later.
Both “Superflat” and “Coloriage” presented a catch-all for popular Japanese arts based on their “flat,” cartoon-like style and sci-fi-inspired creativity. This new exhibition is touted as pushing beyond the mere surface optics of Japanese pop culture, and embarking on an exercise in social psychoanalysis.
“I invited Murakami in 2001 to curate an exhibition on contemporary Japanese popular culture,” said Munroe, in an interview last week. “I asked him to give me not only the cute image but the dark image. I asked him specifically for the psyche of contemporary Japan. I wanted the pulse — and he delivered.”
The end product is classic Murakami. The works of 10 contemporary Japanese artists (many of whom are Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki, a kind of atelier of proteges), and veteran “Superflat” show artists — Chiho Aoshima; Chinatsu Ban; Mr.; Aya Takano — mingle with Hello Kitty, Godzilla and cult anime hit “Akira.” Walking through the show, marveling at Murakami’s hand-picked collection crammed into the small gallery space, it’s almost as if one has entered the wacky world of the otaku (nerd, geek) . . . or perhaps a toy store.
The title “Little Boy” is cheekily provocative and refers to the codename for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. “To most Japanese, the term ‘Little Boy’ conjures up memories of catastrophic defeat and represents a narrative of national humiliation,” writes Munroe in the exhibition catalog.
The thesis of the exhibition is simple, perhaps too simple: “A pervasive impotence defines the culture of postwar Japan, where everything is peaceful, tranquil, lukewarm. Our general removal from world politics and distorted dependence on the United States leaves us in a circumscribed, closed-in system, inhabiting an Orwellian, science-fiction realm,” Murakami states in the same catalog.
In this exhibition, Murakami takes the bombing of Hiroshima as a point of departure for analyzing the postwar Japanese obsession with imagery of atomic bombs, toxic wastelands and mass destruction dominating cartoon narratives. One of Murakami’s works, “Time Bokan — Black,” in which a mushroom cloud takes on the shape of a skull embellished with his hallmark flowers, is a parody of this theme.
The imagery of the titles also refers to the “infantalization” and effective “disempowerment” of the Japanese culture and mindset represented by concepts like kawaii and otaku.
Despite the “infant” imagery evoked, the childish waifs of Aya Takano are no innocent virgins. Similarly, Yuki Ohshima’s bishojo (beautiful girls) strike scandalously suggestive poses in a work that symbolizes the conflation of kawaii and otaku cultures.
In all this, one can’t help but wonder whether “Little Boy,” rather than challenging common images and stereotypes of Japan — as a country that doesn’t take its national responsibility seriously and suffers from arrested development in its mental, social and cultural dimensions — actually perpetuates them. The motifs employed in the exhibition — manga, videogames, Kitty-chan, Godzilla — are all too familiar symbols of “modern Japan.” Not only does it seem to herald anything but “the beginnings of a critical reassessment” as some have suggested, it is easy to come away from the exhibition with the lingering suspicion that Murakami is selling Japan short.
Far from challenging perceptions the show at times comes across as little more than a clever repackaging of selective “exotic” and “wacky” features of contemporary Japan for American consumption.
Perhaps one of the ultimate ironies is that this Japanese popular culture (consisiting of comic books, anime, pachinko machines, stuffed toys) has been brought into the gallery, put behind a glass case and transformed into “high” art, just like the toilets and soup cans of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
Murakami described this transformation: “From the American perspective this whole package I’ve brought over to New York in this exhibition is perceived and understood as ‘subculture’ — Hello Kitty, Doraemon. But in Japanese society there’s no distinction between subculture and mainstream cultures. The high/low dichotomy is distinctively Western.”
Much has been made of the political overtones of the exhibition, particularly with the conspicuous incorporation of Article 9 of the Constitution in the display. However, Murakami denies any nationalist aspirations: “How could I be [a nationalist]? Look, I’m applying for an American green card at the moment.”
Nevertheless, the exhibition can be viewed as research into nationalism of sorts. Murakami’s brand of nationalism is not the “grown-up” version promoted by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and rightwing militants. Murakami’s is a “childlike” nationalism that is informed by peace:
“The Japanese mindset and the American mindset are very different. The American mindset is a product of the culture of success, whereas the Japanese psyche is a product of the culture of defeat. One thing I want to show Americans through this exhibition is that there is another path — an alternative to war, a path of peace.”
The message behind “Little Boy” may seem curiously counterintuitive to most Western eyes: Eternal youth isn’t so bad, so why should the Little Boy grow up?
“[Postwar Japan] gave up the idea of becoming an adult,” he continued. “And instead of reacting to its situation by starting a revolution or a rebellion, it simply accepted its role of victim and resigned itself to peace. It might not have been by the fairest of tactics, but we’ve managed to secure peace so what’s so wrong with that? To grow up is to remilitarize. Is that what we really need in the world today?”
Murakami once said, “The world of the future might be like Japan is today “super flat.” The message of “Little Boy” seems to be that this might not be such a bad fate. For all the underlying hysteria, “superflat” is desirable, comforting and, most importantly, it offers an anesthetized “peace.” Make no mistake: Murakami’s “Little Boy” is a powerful rejection of American militarism and politics. For all the allusions to Article 9, this artist is in the business of making and selling art rather than making and selling political statements.
Murakami symbolizes a negation of the old-school leftist avant-garde of the 1960s, represented by Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusuma — his is not an art of protest, it is an art of resignation captured in the “otaku” culture. He is more interested in pleasing rather than antagonizing the viewer. Murakami’s message of peace is delivered with a polite smile.
What could be more “Japanese” (to American eyes)? But it looks like the message might get lost in translation.
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