Art | Heisei Icons

Takashi Murakami: The face of Japanese contemporary art abroad, underappreciated at home

by Andrew Lee

Staff Writer

This is the sixth in a 10-part series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates in April. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.

“You’ll have seen his work, even if you don’t know who he is.”

That’s pretty much how people who do know the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami end up explaining to the unenlightened just who he is — especially in Japan, where he should be a household name, but isn’t.

In Tokyo alone, Murakami’s commercial work can be seen in the official mascots for the Roppongi Hills complex and Tokyo MX TV station. Elsewhere, his distinctive imagery adorns clothes, footwear, accessories and so on, in numerous tie-ups with brands such as Louis Vuitton, Adidas, Uniqlo and even Frisk mints.

Over on Instagram, he shares news of collaborative projects with musicians such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and, most recently, Billie Eilish.

In spite of his massive presence on the international art scene, however, once Murakami’s work is pointed out to people in Japan the reaction is often simply, “Oh, him! The one who does those kawaii (cute) flowers,” referring to a major motif in his work.

So why is this artist, so well-known and admired abroad, not more respected in his home country? Murakami’s most likely response: Because the Japanese “hate” him — or at least that they don’t understand his art.

Which is a shame, because as his French representative, Emmanuel Perrotin, says, “Takashi is not only the most important Japanese artist of the Heisei Era — he will be the most important of the next era, too.”

Takashi Murakami in 1998 with Osamu Miyawaki, founder of the figurine company Kaiyodo, alongside a prototype for Murakami
Takashi Murakami in 1998 with Osamu Miyawaki, founder of the figurine company Kaiyodo, alongside a prototype for Murakami’s Miss ko2. | COURTESY TAKASHI MURAKAMI/KAIKAI KIKI CO., LTD

To understand Murakami, one has to recognize that he really doesn’t care what Japanese people think of his art, because he is not creating it for them.

Instead, his focus has always been the international market, where his work now sells for tens of millions of dollars and his exhibitions have thousands of fans lining up to see them. In the past two years alone, he has produced at least 10 major exhibitions across three continents.

However, Murakami is so much more than a prolific artist. He is also a successful art collector, mentor, filmmaker and curator, without whom the face of contemporary Japanese art would be very different.

In 2000, when Murakami published his now-famous superflat manifesto, he changed the perception of Japanese art forever. Murakami postulated that there is no distinction between the “low” art of Japan’s otaku (geek) culture, such as anime and manga, and art traditionally seen as “high” or fine art. By doing so, he flattened the art world overnight, and put himself on course to become the most influential artist of his time.

Ironically, however, in order to create this new Japanese art movement, he had to first seek his fame and fortune overseas.

After graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (now Tokyo University of the Arts) in 1993, with a Ph.D. in nihonga (Japanese-style painting), Murakami found himself at odds with the Japanese art market at the time.

In a statement on the website of his company, Kaikai Kiki, Murakami writes: “In post-war Japan, there was no reliable art market. The art scene existed only as a shallow appropriation of Western trends … unable to support an artist’s career over many years. I realized this when I was a student, and stopped operating within the Japanese art market altogether, investing my energies instead into promoting my works overseas.”

While taking part in the Nippon International Contemporary Art Fair in Yokohama, in 1993, Murakami met gallerist Perrotin, who would go on to represent the artist and be the first person to show Murakami’s work outside Japan.

Describing his first encounter with Murakami, Perrotin said that on the first day of his visit to the 1993 NICAF he’d spotted some art he admired, and that later he met Murakami among a group of young Japanese artists.

“He had such an incredible energy,” Perrotin recalled. “He brought me to the booth where his works were being exhibited and, as it turns out, they were the very sculptures I had noticed before.”

The pair met again in New York the following year while Murakami was there on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. Perrotin represented him at the 1994 Gramercy Park fair in New York, beginning a partnership that continues today.

‘And Then, And Then And Then And Then And Then (Blue)’ | ©︎1994 TAKASHI MURAKAMI/KAIKAI KIKI CO., LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

It was around this time that Murakami first experimented with the style that would go on to define his work, creating his Mr. DOB character — a smiling alter-ego that looks like a cross between Mickey Mouse and Sonic the Hedgehog, and clearly shared traits with Japanese manga characters.

Murakami began to blend his formal high-art training in nihonga with his love of manga and anime, creating a new style of pop art that was instantly recognizable as Japanese rather than American.

In 1995, the artist had his first solo show outside Japan at Galerie Perrotin in Paris, which featured a 3-meter high inflatable Mr. DOB, along with paintings featuring the character.

“At the time, it was incredibly difficult for a Japanese artist to make their debut in Europe or America,” Murakami told The Japan Times by email. “Therefore, all I could think was that I would be extremely lucky to be able to debut as an artist at all, and I wasn’t hoping for much more.”

The show, however, was a huge success and all the works were sold, giving Murakami and Perrotin the money and confidence to keep producing new works. Murakami never looked back.

In order to work on larger-scale pieces, in 1996 Murakami founded his production workshop Hiropon Factory, which was incorporated into Kaikai Kiki in 2001, with studios in both Japan and New York.

The “factory” and the “pop” aesthetic of Murakami’s work — and the way it draws from manga and anime, much the same way as pop artists of the 1960s drew from comics and blurred the line between commerce and art — inevitably led to comparisons with Andy Warhol and his Factory.

Murakami, however, was charging forward with a distinctly Japanese neo-pop aesthetic that he would later label superflat, and through Hiropon Factory and Kaikai Kiki he sought to promote both this new style of art, and the otaku culture from which it stemmed, to the world.

In 2000, Murakami began to curate what would become a trilogy of exhibitions that presented Japan’s subculture to an international audience craving what was then being labeled “Cool Japan.”

Starting as a small but successful show at the Parco department store art gallery in Shibuya, Tokyo, “Superflat” was then enlarged and installed at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2001. Murakami followed that up in 2002 with “Coloriage” at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris, and “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture at the Japan Society Gallery” in New York in 2005.

The key purpose of the three exhibitions was to back up Murakami’s theory that contemporary Japanese art was a direct result of a uniquely Japanese psychology that emerged after the country lost in World War II — that the otaku culture of anime, manga and video games was the artistic output of a “childish” people who could not face growing up, and that “flattening” layers of infantile, erotic and apocalyptic imagery was how Japanese creators, and Japanese society in general, dealt with the anxiety and fear caused by having atomic bombs dropped on them.

A grand theme indeed, but one that resonated with how Japan was increasingly being viewed by the world through the filter of manga, anime and video games.

Although Murakami’s own work was in each of the shows and was now selling for record prices, the real legacy of the superflat exhibition trilogy was to introduce the work of other Japanese artists, including Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshima, Aya Takano and many others, to the international art scene, and to establish Murakami’s role as a curator and promoter of Japanese art.

As Perrotin says, Murakami was now “critical in the development of contemporary art in Japan.”

Takashi Murakami is seen at his recent
Takashi Murakami is seen at his recent ‘Bubblewrap’ exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Kumamoto. | PHOTO BY TOMOHIKO TAGAWA ©︎2018 TAKASHI MURAKAMI/KAIKAI KIKI CO., LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

In parallel to the superflat trilogy, Murakami also created a local art fair in Japan in 2002 called Geisai that was held twice a year until 2014 and invited thousands of artists to present their work to international collectors.

“Thanks to Geisai, a wider audience started becoming interested in Japanese contemporary art,” said Perrotin.

Yet despite all these efforts, acceptance has still eluded Murakami in Japan — the artist himself believes jealousy of his success abroad lies behind this — and certain elements of his art have come to reflect that. His alter ego, Mr. DOB, for example, slowly evolved from a cute smiling character into a horrific fanged beast with multiple heads and a distorted body.

“I believe my character Mr. DOB underwent such a transformation because just as my reputation as an artist had begun to rise in the West, I was increasingly hated in Japan, and I was distressed by this chasm,” Murakami said. “Jealousy can genuinely engulf the true nature of a being, creating a frightening phenomena.”

Despite his distress, Murakami has not completely given up on his Japanese audience and held a successful solo show in 2015 at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, Tokyo, titled “Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats.” By his own admission, however, he has generally shifted his focus at home to the production of films and the curation of exhibitions, including his most recent Japanese show, “Bubblewrap,” at the Contemporary Art Museum in Kumamoto, in which he attempted to “reconceive postwar Japanese contemporary art by focusing on the artistic movements of Japan’s so-called bubble economy era.”

It’s almost impossible to catalog here the sheer volume of Murakami’s output over the years since “Superflat” made him the darling of the international art world.

He has had dozens of exhibitions everywhere, from Doha to Moscow, including the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Aside from his work as an artist, Murakami has branched out to making film and TV animations, as well as operating galleries and running restaurants.

“These projects are eventually incorporated as motifs into my artwork, but they are very expensive to manage. Every day, I pray to the nebulous heavens: ‘Please, God, don’t let my company collapse,'” Murakami said.

“So basically, I am content as long as my company is safe from bankruptcy and I am able to continue making works until I die.”


Did you know …

  • The biggest indication of Murakami’s rising fame over the years can be seen in the incredible prices his works fetch. In 2003, when his Miss ko2 (1996) — a 1.83-meter-tall model of an anime-inspired blonde girl in a red-and-white maid outfit — sold for $567,500, it was the highest price ever paid for a piece of contemporary Japanese art. Skip forward to 2010 and the same statue re-sold at auction for $6.8 million.
  • In May 2008, My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), an anime-inspired sculpture of a masturbating boy whose stream of semen forms a lasso, sold for a record-breaking $15.2 million.
  • In 2002, he tied up with Marc Jacobs to produce a now iconic line of Louis Vuitton handbags featuring Murakami’s trademark jellyfish eyes and cherries, a blurring of the line between art and fashion that saw a fully functional Louis Vuitton boutique included in his “© MURAKAMI” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2008.
  • In 2008, he was the only visual artist to be named in Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
  • Takashi Murakami was born in 1962. His father, a taxi driver, and his homemaker mother forced the young Murakami to write critiques of exhibitions, establishing the critical thinking on art that he continues today.
  • In 2013, he produced the film “Jellyfish Eyes,” a story about a boy whose father died in the 2011 tsunami and who teams up with other children and their Pokemon-like friends to defeat a greater evil.