The key to Takashi Murakami’s success was that his art came packaged with a theory, and for that theory he relied heavily on a 1970 book titled “The Lineage of Eccentricity,” by art historian Nobuo Tsuji.

Tsuji was the first to point out that some of Japan’s most famous historical painters — including Sansetsu Kano (of the Kano School), Ito Jakuchu and ukiyo-e artist Kuniyoshi Utagawa — shared an “eccentric” streak, a penchant for the playful, the fantastic and the decorative. He also noted that their work had a “strange correspondence” with contemporary manga.

While Tsuji’s manga reference was largely ignored by the art establishment, Murakami quickly realized its importance. Here was an opportunity to argue that manga (whose aesthetic had since spread to anime and video games) was the sole custodian of Japan’s rich artistic heritage.

Murakami bolstered Tsuji’s thesis by noticing structural similarities among the “eccentric” artists’ work, and manga too. They all “created surface images that erased interstices and thus made the observer aware of the images’ extreme planarity,” he said in the catalog to his 2001 exhibition, “Superflat.”

All that remained was to illustrate the theory with paintings that were playful, fantastic, decorative and, most importantly, flat (in other words, lacking in shadows, perspective and other indicators of depth). He could then position them as the contemporary offspring of the Kano school, of ukiyo-e, of manga, of anime, even of decorative kimono and fabric patterns. In short, every manifestation of Japanese culture that was already loved by the West.

Murakami’s oft-distorted and intentionally vacuous characters, Mr. DOB, Kaikai and Kiki; his fantastical life-size figurines; his fields of uniform flowers: All fit within his carefully prepared framework.

In 2001 Murakami’s theory even got the thumbs up from Tsuji. In a discussion in monthly art journal Bijutsu Techo, he told Murakami that “flatness” is something he “hadn’t really thought of myself. You can have the patent to that idea!” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.