The Japanese word manga, coined by 19th-century painter Katsushika Hokusai, originally described sketches of Japan's "floating world"--placid landscapes, battling samurai, and erotically posed geisha. The pictures, while immensely popular during Hokusai's lifetime, never realized much mainstream respectability; manga is, in fact, literally translated as "irresponsible pictures." The intervening century hasn't abated Japan's passion for such material: In a year, the average Japanese adult reads dozens of manga comic books, the descendants of that Edo-period pulp fiction. Nor has manga's cultural stock gone up much over the years. Despite their popularity, the comics--and anime films derived from them--are still considered a rather lowbrow interest. Otaku, the word for the fanatical, mostly male fans of manga, for instance, suggests a decidedly antisocial drift.
"Superflat," a fascinating traveling exhibit curated by artist Takashi Murakami (at Walker Art Center through October 14), makes a case for modern manga's significance by placing it in an artistic genealogy stretching back to Hokusai. Looking at a few choice examples from the exhibit, though, one can easily see why the genre hasn't achieved the cachet of fine art. One sample, a nonsensical manga panel by Henmaru Machino, shows a caterpillar with a button-cute little girl's face at one end and an engorged vulva at the other. An adjacent picture shows the same archetypal schoolgirl, this time on her hands and knees, nude, gagged, and being violated by a teddy bear. Irresponsible pictures, indeed.
According to Murakami, manga's risqué bent is central to its essential Japanese-ness. In his "Superflat Manifesto," included in the exhibit catalog, he explains that the show's title refers not only to aesthetic flatness--the extreme two-dimensionality of cartoons--but also to the absence of hierarchy dividing art, advertising, porn, and entertainment. "Society, customs, art, culture: All are extremely two-dimensional," his essay contends. "I would like you to experience the moment when the layers of Japanese culture, such as pop, erotic pop, [and] otaku...fuse into one."
Murakami, who may be Japan's most influential living artist, certainly doesn't seem like the type to issue manifestoes: Wearing wrinkled cargo shorts, round wire-rimmed glasses, and an unruly topknot, he looks two decades younger than his 38 years. Nor is he given to Warholian hyperbole. Arriving at the crack of noon to oversee the final day of installation, he explains that he envisioned the exhibit as a way of placing his work in historical context (he was trained in nihonga, a hybrid Japanese/Western painting style developed in the 19th Century). Yet Murakami chose to include almost nothing of his own. "I want to concentrate on curating," he says. "So I can't have an artist's ego."
That said, the artist, who in the next few minutes cites both Jeff Koons and George Lucas as major influences, hardly shies from self-promotion: His studio on the outskirts of Tokyo, modeled on Warhol's Factory, churns out T-shirts, posters, and mouse pads with entrepreneurial abandon. "The difference between here and Japan is that there's no art market in Japan," he elaborates. "Here it's easy for a famous artist to get money. It's more of a big-business style. In Japan it's a really quiet cultural situation. In L.A."--where "Superflat" appeared after its Tokyo debut--"there were 10,000 people lined up, like they were waiting for a popular movie. It's not like that in Japan."
Indeed, Murakami, while perhaps still an underground figure in Japan, has recently become a darling of the U.S. art world. In the past year alone, he's had a major solo show in Boston and a commission to install three brightly colored dirigibles in New York City's Grand Central Station. His status manifests itself in less obvious ways, as well. As he talks, a Walker gallery worker walks by wearing a T-shirt featuring Murakami's best-known creation, a maniacally smiling mouse called Mr. Dob. (If Ritalin ever needed a spokes-character, Mr. Dob would be it.)
According to Murakami, there is a bloodline between Japan's antiquity--Edo-period screens, for instance--and its neo-pop avant-garde. The defining example of this continuity, to his mind, might be Yoshinori Kanada's seminal 1979 anime film Galaxy Express 999. Kanada's creation, which is represented here as a series of stills, pioneered a style called "limited animation," which, for budgetary reasons, featured far fewer frames per second than Disney-style American animation. The result was jerky, stylized imagery characterized by techno-futuristic design and ejaculatory explosions. Murakami himself made the latter motif hilariously literal in "My Lonesome Cowboy," a sculpture of a semen-slinging anime character included in last year's "Let's Entertain" exhibit at the Walker.
Similar to that piece are the sculptures of veteran commercial artist Bome, miniature figurines of manga heroines. Bome's pieces are three-dimensional fantasies: lithe girls with oversize poppet eyes and Playboy measurements dressed in a variety of scanty uniforms (a schoolgirl's being predominant). They're essentially Barbie dolls for horny boys and, not surprisingly, are fetishistically prized by otaku. As Murakami points out, though, Bome's work also alludes to classical precedents: As Warhol's prints sent up Catholic iconography, Bome's anime effigies refer to traditional Buddhist sculpture. They re-position Hello Kitty as a household god.
Bome's work is a product of the highly codified manga subculture, particularly the "roricon" subgenre of Lolita erotica that often features graphic sexual violence and bizarre metamorphoses. This predilection--which has also seeped into mainstream anime--seems hard to square with the implicit claim of "Superflat" to represent Japan's collective unconscious. (And, sadly, of the few female artists included here, only Aya Takano's expressionistic, psychologically rich paintings attempt any sort of feminist response to the undercurrent of misogyny.) Work like Bome's not only flirts with taboos; its sexualization of youth crosses a cordon sanitaire. To Western eyes, there may seem something obsessive and unhealthy about roricon fanaticism (though perhaps with the advent of Britney Spears et al. Americans ought not to cast stones). This certainly doesn't disqualify manga as pop art, but it does suggest a psychosexual dimension beneath the flat façade.
The work of the young Tokyo artist Mr., for instance, speaks volumes about otaku culture's darker underside: His sketches of anime pinup girls, done by the hundreds on the backs of receipts, seem the artifacts of an unquiet mind. Mr. is not wholly uncritical of his obsession, though. One video installation shows the artist in an industrial barrio, swinging a sword around in a parody of manga's action-hero fantasies. Another shows him lying in the mud with eyes closed, apparently manipulating his pokémon.
A similar morbidity flavors much of the work by younger artists in "Superflat"--a redolence, perhaps, of Japan's burst bubble economy. One gallery wall, for instance, is adorned with the heads of Teletubbies mounted like big-game trophies. Elsewhere, the manga artist Kentaro Takekuma offers his "dream-like plan for the Thomas-ification of JR Chuo-line Locomotives." The idea--painting the face of the lovable Thomas on the front of Tokyo's trains--seems cute until you read the accompanying text. The artist, it turns out, is miffed by the number of suicides--casually referred to as "tuna sushi" by railroad workers--causing train delays.
Dominating the same gallery is a creepy installation by the Tokyo advertising/graphic-design firm Groovisions consisting of a phalanx of identical mannequins wearing garishly orange jumpsuits and narcotized, childlike smiles. There's definitely something malevolent about Groovisions' version of global pop-cultural homogeneity: Theirs is a world of pod people. And yet these clones, called Chappies, have become an advertising phenomenon in Japan. In an absurd example of pop music's infinite plasticity, they've even managed to release their own CD. Their popularity seems to support the unspoken, and rather disheartening, premise of "Superflat": that art and advertising stand on level ground. For all its visual pleasure and provocative social observation, "Superflat" sometimes seems not just inclusive but shallow. This neo-pop admits no hierarchy of ideas, and thus no criterion for judgment; it's all as smoothly artificial as the commercial culture from whence it springs. By the exhibit's logic, we may have to declare those television spots featuring Lara Croft hawking Pepsi as masterpieces of the avant-garde.
Despite its stated purpose, "Superflat" doesn't draw a very strong connection between otaku culture and traditional Japanese art. Part of the problem is that Murakami includes none of the latter to buttress his arguments about the former. An example of the whimsical, proto-cartoonish 18th-century prints of Soga Shohaku, for instance, might go a long way toward illuminating the mythological and aesthetic allusions in Chiho Aoshima's computer-created murals. And the "Superflat" pieces that seem to best demonstrate the continuity of the superflat aesthetic are, in fact, only peripherally linked to manga and anime. U.S.-based Shigeyoshi Ohi's pacific photos, for example, blend a traditional Japanese landscape--silhouetted fish swimming up waterfalls--with ingenious modern technique, using long exposure times to create the illusion of meteor showers in the sky above. Ohi's photos suggest a deeply reverent modernization of traditional scroll paintings, in which natural landscapes were flattened vertically and infused with a floating luminescence. Ohi's work represents the possibility of superflatness--not as a cartoon version of Edo-period drawings, but as a hyperrealism not beholden to distance or depth, gravity or volume.
Given that Murakami organized "Superflat" to demonstrate this possibility, it's rather a shame that he didn't see fit to include more of his own work, since his paintings--a graceful synthesis of nihonga technique and contemporary imagery--might also help to give shape to the amorphous "superflat sensibility." In what can only be an act of self-effacement, Murakami's single contribution to this exhibit, a digitally rendered mural of outsize cartoon eyes, is hidden above the entrance to the Walker's lobby.
Even if Murakami's piece were visible, it would be eclipsed by Katsushige Nakahashi's stunning sculpture of a World War II fighter plane constructed from 15,000 Polaroid photos of a small plastic model of the same. More than any other work here, Nakahashi's speaks to an essential pessimism in contemporary Japan: The plane, which seems to be sliding wearily off the gallery wall, refers both to the fragmenting experience of the war--thousands of images pressed into a semblance of reality--and the humiliation of the postwar period--the mighty Japanese war machine turned flaccid. Yet the piece doesn't just engage history: In an act of ritual purification, Nakahashi has paraded similar sculptures through the streets, then burned them. His work, set against the adolescent pop fantasies and ephemeral jetsam of manga culture, bespeaks an emotional maturity not dreamt of in "Superflat" philosophy.