Originally published in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures

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Originally published in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

Introducing Little Boy

by Alexandra Munroe
On a blistering July morning in Tokyo recently, I took the subway to Akihabara, the discount electronics district that in recent years has become a center for otaku display and consumption. With hundreds of stalls lining the blackened arcades under the train tracks and shopkeepers hawking their goods and prices over the roar above, Akihabara at first glance feels like a city quarter arrested, almost nostalgically, in Japan’s postwar era. Structurally, little has changed since the old JR station traversing the burned plain between downtown Tokyo and the imperial palace became the haven, in the late 1940s and 1950s, for the Japanese yami-ichi (black market) parts. Then, as now, housewives, Koreans, and American servicemen browse and haggle for the latest gadgets—new, used, or in-between—which have evolved over the decades from Sony transistors and color TVs to PlayStations and robotics kits. In this dank, village-like space where the culture of an off-price marketplace appeared to have changed so little, my senses gradually focused on the bright, flat cartoon imagery of exploding mushroom clouds, fantastic mutant monsters, and baby-faced, cyborg heroines that now dominated the graphics projected on wall-size plasma screens, the posters announcing new video releases, and the handbills for Internet game sites strewn along the cobbled alleys. In the impoverished yet vital postwar spectacle of Akihabara, the visual narratives of manga, anime, and videogames have turned atomic war, ecological havoc, and Lolita-like sexual fantasy into the themes of a dense and interconnected world of media, entertainment, and consumption. Here, the fabulous displays and spinning energy of Japan’s popular culture have emphatically eclipsed banal reality.
Halfway down the busiest arcade, I entered a tiny shop that specialized in figures—miniature plastic renditions of characters that star in the hundreds of quasi-underground cartoon productions and publications that are the stuff of otaku life. The store was crowded with punkish-looking teenagers, distinguished as a tribe by their dyed and spiked hair and backpacks decorated with dangling figures of their favorite anime and manga characters. Milling among the stacks of crammed and locked vitrines, I came upon figures of sleek, masked fighters in red and silver body-armor posed with fists raised to strike; winged and fanged reptilian creatures with fierce, blood-shot eyes; and a doe-eyed, green-haired girl in a mini-skirted school uniform encased in a plastic sheath emblazoned with “To Heart Collection Figure.” Nestled among this menagerie, I spotted the object of my search—Miss ko2, a secret-agent character dressed as a buxom, blonde waitress, beckoning with stupefied, super-big eyes (fig. 5.2). The figure is packaged by Kaiyōdō, Japan’s largest manufacturer of plastic miniatures, and sold as part of a shokugan (literally, “food toy”) series called “Takashi Murakami’s Superflat Museum,” one of several Superflat shokugan series designed by Murakami and featuring Miss ko2. Small plastic toys packaged as accompaniments to candy and chocolate, shokugan have attained widespread commercial success, and Murakami’s various shokugan series are part of this phenomenon. Other products in the “Superflat Museum” series are “Strange Melting DOB,” a multi­eyed head with Mickey Mouse ears and a ghoulish, menacing smile; and “Inochi” (Life), an aluminum skeleton whose flesh seems to have liquefied from heat, with a triangular robot’s head and tiny, bright green eyes. That this fanatics’ den could house such a plethora of objects designed by one of Japan’s most internationally acclaimed artists offered a clear signal that the conventional distances between contemporary art and mass consumer culture, between the strategies of new artistic styles and subversive social movements, and between the seemingly cute and the historically traumatic have collapsed.
Takashi Murakami is at the nexus of this bizarre conflation. The miniature Miss ko2, the artist’s take on the type of hypersexualized anime character favored by otaku, was originally included as the “free toy” in a shokugan set sold cheaply at Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores; now the figure was tagged with a 2940-yen (approximately $28) label in the Akihabara arcade shop. In 2003, the six-foot fiberglass original sold at Christie’s, New York, for $567,500. In Murakami’s work, all opposites are pushed to their extremes—the infantile toward the libidinal, the seductive toward the terrifying, the kitschy toward the unimaginably gorgeous. In his paintings and sculpture, the graphic devices, visual imagery, and disturbing ambiguities of the candy­coated apocalyptic themes that so pervade postwar and contemporary Japanese cartoon arts bridge a divide that Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons could only dream of traversing. Murakami does not merely appropriate the manga- and anime­based worlds of otaku subculture; he operates within them. His lushly bright, mutant characters, all of which have names, are coveted by convenience-store consumers as much as they are sought after by the international art community.
What marks Murakami as both so crucial and controversial a force is his position as both mirror and critic of the cultural, political, social, and economic trends that have given rise to Japan’s otaku subculture and its related Neo Pop movement in contemporary art. Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture invites the artist into the museum to demonstrate his vision of Japan today. This is the reverse of normal procedure, in which academically trained curators shape the cultural discourse; here, Murakami presents us with his views from within the national psyche. We follow and resist him, veering between feelings of bafflement, exhilaration, and emptiness.
Little Boy is the final installment of Murakami’s Superflat trilogy, a series of exhibitions he has organized since 2000 that have explored the origins of contemporary Japanese art and its fluid exchange with the realms of manga and anime. This trilogy has aimed to articulate a visual logic for the originality and eccentricity in Japanese art based on the consistent use of devices from cartoons and comics that summon a supernatural realm—a world of beauties, monsters, paradise, and hell—that stands in opposition to the naturalism worked out with such scientific sophistication in the European tradition. According to Murakami’s Superflat thesis, brilliant color, planar surfaces, stylized features, and the absence of illusionistic space define a lineage in Japanese art that links Rinpa screens to ukiyo-e woodblock prints to early modern Nihonga painting, and ultimately to postwar manga and anime. In the earlier Superflat (2000–01) and Coloriage (Paris, 2002) shows,1 Murakami argued his thesis largely through formal comparisons of decorative patterning in work by Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshima, and other emerging Neo Pop artists, juxtaposed against the works of manga and anime design icons like Yoshinori Kanada (whose 1979 Galaxy Express 999 is an anime classic) and Shigeru Mizuki (whose 1965 Hakaba no Kitarō was a long-standing manga hit).
Basic to Murakami’s Superflat “installation” of contemporary Japanese art is the radical interconnection and lack of distinction between Japan’s fine and popular arts. In the West, an entire field of the humanities and museology itself are predicated upon the value differences between “high” and “low” culture, “unique” and “reproducible” articles, and “Art,” “craft,” and “commodity.” Although postmodernism has challenged and disrupted these conventional divisions, they remain fundamental to the history and culture of Euro-American art. Drawing upon revisionist studies of Japanese art history, Murakami claims that these distinctions never existed in premodern Japan. Indeed, as the art historian Noriaki Kitazawa has argued in a series of influential books,2 the very term and concept of bijutsu (fine arts) was constructed in 1873 as part of the modernization program instituted by the Meiji government (1868–1912) to bring Japan to parity with the West in all arenas of national display. Prior to this curious import, “art” was produced and consumed as either craft, decoration, or tool for ritual. In an effort to reconstitute this non-hierarchy, Murakami has proposed the concept of Superflat to explain and validate the enormous appreciation of manga, anime, videogames, and related popular and subculture arts in Japan. If the avant-garde movements of the 1960s like Neo Dada and Conceptualism aimed to tear down the boundaries between art and everyday life, transforming common objects into subjects of contemplation, Murakami’s Superflat program aims to explode the enduring Western-art boundaries between art and the mass media of comics and cartoons. His is a stronger assault than Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, which lifted commercial products like Brillo boxes and advertising mediums like silkscreen from the supermarket and street billboard to the gallery and museum. Murakami’s thrust goes the other way, extending the concept of “fine arts” into the gigantic, global marketplace of TV, comic books, videogames, fashion, and the Internet.
Like earlier radical artists who advocated the mining of indigenous sources to refute the perception and practice of a “derivative” Japanese modernism—such as Tarō Okamoto, who invoked the primitivism of prehistoric Japanese art in the 1950s, thus informing the raw energy of Tokyo’s Anti-Art movements—Murakami seeks to wrest Japan from the banality of a copy-culture. This may seem a challenge, as Japan’s popular arts beg to be distinguished from their direct American precedents. While Murakami acknowledges the pervasiveness of Walt Disney cartoons and Robert Heinlein’s science fiction and the development of postwar Japanese comics and animation, he understands that their styles have been co-opted and applied to a very different cultural narrative. Likewise, the imagery of what he calls Japan’s “post-Pop Art” has virtually no resonance with the sophisticated irony of American Pop Art. The difference lies, as will be discussed, in how Japanese artists have infused their works with the imagination of subculture, an imagination that embraces and reshapes half-forgotten memories into the Technicolor fantasies of contemporary life.
As the final installment of the Superflat trilogy, Little Boy goes beyond the spectacular optics of Japan’s popular culture to identify the terrifying fantasies of a graphic subculture centered on the imagery of atomic explosion and post-apocalyptic salvation, monsters born of radioactive mutations, and intergalactic warfare between mystically empowered Japanese and technologically advanced aliens. The title refers to the code name for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, marking the first use of nuclear weapons in modern warfare (pl. 6). A second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki three days later, leading to Japan’s final unconditional surrender on August 15. These events concluded the so-called Pacific War waged by Japan from 1931 as an instrument of imperialist expansion against countries in East and Southeast Asia, including China, and from 1941 against the United States and its allies.
To most Japanese, the term “Little Boy” conjures up memories of catastrophic defeat and represents a narrative of national humiliation. To Murakami, its meanings and imagery also suggest the culture and politics of infantilization. The Japanese people, in his view, have developed a dependency on the U.S. as “protector” and “superpower” that began with the American-led occupation (1945–51) and that continues to this day, resulting in a willful negation of both adulthood and nationhood. In other words, the Japanese have refused—or rather, have been refused the chance—to grow up. Murakami cites Article 9 of the American-drafted postwar Japanese constitution, which renounces militarism and bans the establishment of defense forces (pl. 8). Since the constitution was enacted at the outbreak of the Cold War, the security of Japan has been consigned to the U.S. The question posed is, how can a nation that cannot defend itself achieve “manhood”? The problem, Murakami suggests, is that Japan is mired in a state of disempowerment. “A pervasive impotence defines the culture of postwar Japan,” Murakami remarks, “where everything is peaceful, tranquil, lukewarm. Our general removal from world politics and distorted dependence on the U.S. leaves us in a circumscribed, closed-in system, inhabiting an Orwellian, science-fiction realm.”3 Thus Little Boy explores how cartoons and animation, which elsewhere are conceived as entertainment for children, have been appropriated by artists as a means of resolving the trauma of nuclear war, the devastation of defeat, and the unmoored, apolitical state that has emerged since. Focused often on apocalyptic imagery, with frequent references to atomic explosion and futuristic annihilation/salvation, the cartoons that dominate Japan’s adult media and entertainment industries provide a screen that both exaggerates and diminishes real history, which they function to suppress. Stuck in a preadolescent fixation with the aesthetics of fantasy, Japan itself emerges as the ultimate “little boy” in Murakami’s view.
Murakami’s selection of TV and film animation for the exhibition Little Boy includes some of the best-known and popular anime of postwar Japan. To a remarkable extent, the imagery of atomic bombs, toxic wastelands, and mass destruction dominates these cartoon narratives. Whether or not the bomb itself is depicted, nuclear annihilation appears in a variety of displaced versions in much of postwar Japanese cartoon culture. In the 1970s TV series Time Bokan, each episode of time-machine travel and wacky “mecha-battles” concludes with a bright orange atomic explosion that wipes out the villains, who then re-appear unscathed in the following episode (pl. 3).The influential science-fiction anime series Space Battleship Yamato, also from the 1970s, is centered on interplanetary warfare in which Earth is threatened by futuristic nuclear bombs (pl. 27). Warfare between Earth and its space colony features in the series Mobile Suit Gundam, first broadcast in 1979, an exemplar of the “giant robot anime” genre that introduced the figure of the conflicted antihero, which would become pivotal in the anime of the next two decades (pl. 30). In the 1980s manga and anime film Akira, one of the greatest hits in anime history, Tokyo is obliterated by a human bioweapon, and a visceral spectacle of human destruction unfolds against a dystopian background of civil chaos, religious fundamentalism, and government oppression (fig. 5.3, pl. 18). Finally, Neon Genesis Evangelion, the cult anime of otaku first broadcast in 1995, chronicles the social and psychological disintegration wrought by an apocalypse that descends over a future Tokyo (pl. 33). Here, destruction settles not only on the material world, but on what anime expert Susan J. Napier suggests is “the inner world of the human spirit, which is shown as vulnerable, fragmented, and ultimately broken under the extraordinary weight of late-twentieth­century alienation.”4 In Little Boy, Murakami demonstrates how the national experience of nuclear disaster has created a graphic subculture obsessed with what has been termed the “postnuclear sublime … an exhilarating mixture of dread and desire.”5 While official discourse and historical documentation of the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were largely suppressed during the occupation, their effects on the nation’s imagination are evident in the darkly spectacular pop-culture iconography of catastrophic explosions and social chaos. Perhaps such indulgence is a therapeutic response of Murakami’s generation to the loss of power and expression; through fantasy, reality—or self-identity—is re-experienced.
In the related realm of fine arts, no better representation of the bomb’s ghost can be found than in Murakami’s series of paintings Time Bokan, named after the aforementioned TV series (pl. 4). Against a brightly colored, superflat background, a black mushroom cloud portrayed as a mouthless, mute skull rises dead-center, like a totem of death as figured by a child. The inherent threat of this image is then perversely revoked by its eyeballs, which are composed of wreaths of the multicolored, smiling flower-faces that brand Murakami’s work. Here, Murakami quotes a famous and beloved children’s cartoon in which the horror of national disaster and nuclear threat has become so abstracted, so “flattened” as to be rendered “cute.” History, like all else in Japan’s postmodern manga-anime aesthetic, is reborn as symbol rather than fact, as entertainment rather than documentary, and as Disney-like emotional denial rather than adult political rage. The rapid multiplication of viewpoints and their peculiar equivalence, positioning images of horror and cuteness on the same weightless plane, define the weird spectacle of lived cultural production presented in Little Boy and the particularity of Japan’s postwar experience as compared, say, to Germany’s. As Murakami recalls, his childhood response to seeing frequent representations of the bomb on Japanese TV was an ambiguous mixture of awe and remorse. “We thought, ‘It’s great! It’s beautiful! The U.S. has big power!’ But we also knew of the suffering [the bomb’s] effects caused for the real lives of the Japanese people.”6 His generation, raised in the 1960s and 1970s, watched as the memory of war was subsumed into kawaii (cute) media culture; with Little Boy, Murakami states that his purpose is “to go back to the origin of our postwar trauma.”7
Related to these narratives are Japanese tokusatsu (special effects) monster films, some of which feature creatures transformed by radiation. Perhaps the most famous example is Godzilla, the Tokyo­devouring monster who is awakened after eons of sleep beneath the sea by a hydrogen bomb explosion (pl. 7). His radiation-induced malformity and his nightly attacks on Tokyo, which reduce the city and its screaming population to ashes, became symbols of Japan’s vulnerability and the essential state of terror felt in the postwar decades of the film’s popularity. Monsters (and aliens) also populate the good-versus-evil TV action series Ultraman and Ultraseven (pl. 9), which first appeared in the mid-1960s, and monsters later became the world’s most popular toy characters with the Pokémon (an acronym for “pocket monster”) boom of the late 1990s. According to Noi Sawaragi, the monsters of postwar Japanese popular culture rise from the ooze of the contaminated Japanese landscape, embodiments of a deformed fury that are repeatedly subdued by alien super-beings.8
The monstrous abstraction of organic life also features in the works of Neo Pop artists such as Kenji Yanobe and Noboru Tsubaki. Yanobe emerged in the early 1990s with a series of motorized, car-like sculptures designed for self-preservation. Visitors could drive these vehicles around installations designed to evoke sites of nuclear and environmental devastation, places like Chernobyl that Yanobe calls “the ruins of the future.” Like Murakami, he cites the abandonment and decay of Osaka’s Expo ’70 —the World’s Fair constructed to symbolize the economic and technological power and promise of Japan—as his generation’s emblem of the “failed dreams of a nation.”9 And also like Murakami, Yanobe draws his imagery from Japan’s postwar anime and monster-film culture, as in his Foot Soldier (Godzilla), which is a self-defense vehicle in the form of the monster’s lower body (pl. 25). Equally dark in his cartoonish renditions of global catastrophe is Tsubaki, whose large-scale sculptures envision futuristic decaying amalgams of nature metamorphosed into bright, ghastly apparitions (pl. 31).
Images of “little boy” in Murakami’s exhibition go beyond references to Hiroshima to personify the characters that populate some of Japan’s most beloved anime and manga series. Doraemon, a long-running manga and anime series produced continuously since the 1970s, centers around Nobita, a hapless ten-year-old boy living in suburban Tokyo. Nobita’s guide in life is a futuristic cat-robot, Doraemon, whose various gadgets land the two in trouble in every one of the cartoon series’ two thousand episodes (pl. 14). Nobita is the ultimate loser, and his antics lead inevitably to failure and scolding. As popular in Japan as Charlie Brown is in the U.S., Nobita has become an emblem of boyish kawaii culture—sweet but pitiful. Other icons of Japan’s infantilized culture are Hello Kitty (fig. 5.4, pl. 17), coveted in every form by Japanese consumers from toddlers to grannies, and the hundreds of official local mascots known as yuru chara (pl. 32), made-up, merchandisable characters that represent specific regions. To Murakami, these and other images that populate mainstream mass culture are ubiquitous manifestations of a personification of Japan as “little boy,” a nation willfully susceptible to childish tastes and the feelings of safety they induce.
Artists who draw their visual effects from kawaii culture include Chinatsu Ban, Hideaki Kawashima, Yoshitomo Nara, Mahomi Kunikata, Chiho Aoshima, and Aya Takano (figs. 5.5, 5.6, 5.7; pls. 19, 22, 23, 24, 28, 29). In all of their works, kawaii elements—sweet, saturated color; cartoon-like forms; and over-scaled heads with wide eyes and baby faces—are subtly distorted to reveal sinister content, Disney-like paradisiacal realms devolving into zones of terror. Nara’s idiosyncratic sculptures and paintings of stunted children on the verge of harming themselves or others express the bewildered emptiness at the core of Little Boy’s thesis. In his popular compilation of crayon illustrations, Slash with a Knife, daggers hang over the head of a little girl with the message “Silent Violence”; elsewhere, an armless girl stalks a pencil-drawn horizon line asking, “Where do we go from here?”10 As Nara has commented, “I’m not making art to give the viewer hope. I’m creating [for] this generation that has no power. I’m articulating or producing a scream for them.”11
In Little Boy, Murakami sifts through otaku culture to realize the existential critique at its heart. Little Boy is the first Superflat exhibition to explicitly explore the phenomenon of otaku, not only as consumers and generators of new cultural forms but as the ambivalent foot soldiers of a subculture of resistance. Throughout his Superflat projects, Murakami has celebrated the use of otaku-esque subcultural representations and advocated “Poku” (pop + otaku) as a brilliantly original Japanese cultural product with global appeal. But Little Boy goes beyond a curatorial statement on contemporary Japanese art and its stylistic appropriation, parody, and/or subversion of otaku media. Dick Hebdige, in his cultural-studies classic, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, defines subcultures as pockets of resistance that operate against the bland hegemony of a culture’s invisible and dominant ideologies. He explores how style, including modes of dress, speech, and consumption, serves to expose these invisible systems and so subvert them, opening them up for critique and transformation.12 Little Boy’s notion of otaku fits this definition of subculture precisely.
An overwhelming segment of Japan’s media and entertainment industries is devoted to manga, a ubiquitous medium that constitutes forty percent of all books and magazines sold in Japan, and anime, whose genres—produced for both children and a huge over-thirty demographic—include fantasy, science fiction, romance, comedy, drama, and erotica. Yet within Japanese discourse, the most ardent consumers of manga and anime—otaku—have been vilified for two decades as deviant drop-outs obsessed with shifting fandoms in the manga and anime world, avidly unadult and unsocialized beings consumed with their private subculture of esoteric databases and kawaii products.13 Significantly, otaku are also associated with the cult of radical individualism, shunned by the postwar Japanese state that advocated instead self-sacrifice to the national project of social and economic reconstruction. The otaku “problem” for society has drawn psychiatrists into the public debate more than ever before in the postwar period, with the prominent psychoanalyst Keigo Okonogi warning against “the great danger now represented by an entire generation of youngsters … who can no longer successfully make the transition between the fantastic world of videos and manga and the world of reality.”14 These drifters are identified among the larger set of manga and anime consumers by their particular taste in monster and apocalypse films, and by their obsessive behavior in collecting plastic figures and other merchandise representing their favorite fictional characters. The psychiatrist Tamaki Saitō, who contributed an essay on otaku sexuality for critic Kaichirō Morikawa’s presentation for the Japanese pavilion at the 2004 Venice architectural biennale, Otaku: Persona=Space=City, argues that the fictional contexts within which otaku so naturally operate are part of “a highly developed media environment, where clear-cut dividing lines between reality and fiction no longer exist.” In his view, taking a bishōjo (pretty young girl) figure designed by model-maker Ohshima Yuki (pl. 20) as an object of erotic fantasy, or dressing up (costume play or “cosplay”) as this character, is just, well, normal “multi-oriented” behavior for obsessives that otaku “enjoy.”15
As otaku discourse in Japan has become increasingly associated with social deviance, otaku have assumed a political significance in the nation’s post-Hirohito world. Specifically, their emergence signaled a clear break with the politics of national identity that defined the period of catastrophic defeat from 1945 until Emperor Hirohito’s death in 1989. Spanning the difficult years of the American occupation through the emergence of Japan’s “economic miracle,” the postwar era displayed a remarkably consistent national ideology. First, the rise of imperialism and militarism in Japan, and the Pacific War they led to, was represented as an “aberration” that had derailed the nation’s modernization and industrialization programs, begun so zealously in the Meiji period. According to this history, August 1945 and the occupation that ensued brought liberation from totalitarian rule, recovery from a war­torn economy, and the absolute reconstruction of Japan itself. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and the aforementioned World Exposition of 1970 (Expo ’70) were presented as symbols and evidence of Japan’s re-entry into the (Western) league of modern, civilized nations on the beneficial march towards a grand technological future. Second, nationalism was relegated to the fringes of national debate, as most Japanese embraced the American-drafted constitution and its pacifist, staunchly antinuclear stance. In this scenario, Japanese militarism and all imagery of atomic warfare were essentially taboo. As Eugene Matthews has written, “This marginalization [of nationalism] was a result, in large part, of Japan’s ‘fear of itself.’ . . . The fear stems from two basic concerns: first, that if Japan’s military is given too much power it could again cause the country great pain and, second, that the Japanese public itself could again embrace militarism.”16 Finally, this national ideology promoted the picture of a harmonious, well-educated, and family-centered society organized under the emperor and focused on the shared goal of “high economic growth.” In short, amnesia of the war was officially sanctioned.
The 1990s ushered in the collapse of these faiths and exposed the antiquity of Japan’s modern political, economic, and social systems. The close of the Shōwa era in 1989 stimulated new public debate about the long-buried question of the culpability of the Japanese people in the perpetration of atrocities and aggression, committed under Emperor Hirohito’s imperial command between 1931 and 1945. This domestic debate was further aggravated by demands from East and Southeast Asian countries that Japan make formal apologies for its brutal colonial rule. The suppression of Japan’s militarist past could no longer be sustained. Remarkably, those too young to have known the war firsthand, or to remember the devastation and impoverishment of the immediate postwar years, were fascinated by what the media unleashed after four decades of silencing discourse on Japanese militarism. Rather than continue the charade of shame and ignorance, younger Japanese dared to explore a new nationalism symbolized by Shintarō Ishihara, the popular but controversial governor of Tokyo who came to power in a landslide victory in 1999, advocating a stronger Japanese military against the protests of Japan’s Asian neighbors.
The early 1990s also saw the spectacular burst of Japan’s “bubble economy” and the longest recession in modern Japanese history, which, some argue, continues to this day. Children who came of age in the 1980s—the decade of “Japan as Number One”—witnessed the stagnation of their economy in the 1990s and the foundering of all of the certainties of the postwar social promise. Napier describes how this shift in Japan’s fortunes may have influenced the rise of apocalyptic imagery in Japanese manga and anime:
The perceived failure (or at least inadequacy) of Japan’s postwar economic success has led to an increasing disenchantment with the values and goals that much of postwar Japan has been built on. The many apocalyptic anime seem to be expressions of a pervasive social pessimism. Thus, more recent apocalyptic anime, such as Evangelion, link violent apocalyptic tropes with intense psychoanalytic probing into dysfunctional psyches to produce a memorable vision of what might be called “pathological apocalypse.”17
Perhaps most significantly, the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of Eastern-bloc Communism freed Japan from the fundamental structure of its national self-identity: its long-contended roles as the United States’ Pacific “partner” in the Cold War. The U.S. had served as Japan’s defender since the end of World War II, but with the Gulf War, many in Japan came to feel that Tokyo’s interests were diverging Washington’s, and doubted whether U.S. policy was still good for Japan’s security. Remarkably, the redefinition of the U.S.-Japan alliance has occurred amid open calls for Japan to rearm—a subject long kept hushed. China’s recent and spectacular growth in wealth and power and well­publicized military might, and North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear threats have left many Japanese feeling vulnerable. The result is that the expenditures of the country’s Self Defense Forces for missile defense have dramatically increased; since 1987, they have exceeded the budget of one percent of the GDP that was long considered the nation’s unofficial limit for defense spending. As Matthews states of the constitution’s famous pacifist clause, “Already, Article 9’s prohibitions have started to erode.”18 It appears that unapologetic nostalgia for the wartime glory embodied by Hirohito has spawned resentment among younger Japanese, who feel that the U.S.-drafted constitution forced a transference of national identity—from “emperor as family head” to “America as surrogate authority”—that they now wish to revoke.
Otaku subculture has arisen from this newly complex Japan. Disillusionment with the myth of Japan’s miracle economy, the rise of nationalism, and the gradual move away from America’s sphere of influence and power have defined the conditions—if not the modes—of otaku resistance. Otaku have reclaimed topics, imagery, and behavior that have long been taboo, and identified apocalypse as their common obsession and cartoons as their in-group language. According to Murakami, Sawaragi, Midori Matsui, and other contributors to Little Boy, otaku subcultures are dealing with issues at the core of the “post-postwar” Japanese psyche. Japan, Murakami reflects, is an “apocalyptic tragic paradise.”19 Fascination with war and military gadgetry and criticism of Article 9 have come to define otaku subculture and mark their political and ideological stance as diametrically opposed to (if not largely ignorant of) the leftist discourse that radicalized the 1960s avant-garde—the last period marked by political protest and cultural revolution in Japan. Today’s subculture chooses videogame wars over street-riot opposition, deviance over activism, solipsistic erotic fantasy over sexual freedom, and hollow identity over existential angst. This subculture has long abandoned the ideals of modern humanism, embracing instead what Yumiko Iida calls a postmodern “nihilistic nationalism” linked to a “highly media-permeated and technologically driven socio-cultural environment,” which is “devoid of meaning, historical depth, and empirically grounded subjectivity.”20 In the midst of Japan’s nationalist fervor over the World Cup Soccer games of 2002, an Asahi shinbun columnist commented, “In our relatively homogenous society, many people would feel that being Japanese is self-evident and beyond ambiguity. And yet something is missing from our full sense of being Japanese. It seems to me we are carrying some kind of emptiness around.”21
In 1994, the novelist Kenzaburō Ōe articulated the uncertainty at the heart of Japan’s political and cultural identity in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. As he stated,
After a hundred and twenty years of modernization since the opening up of the country, contemporary Japan is split between two opposite poles of ambiguity. This ambiguity, which is so powerful and penetrating that it divides both the state and its people, and affects me as a writer like a deep-felt scar, is evident in various ways. The modernization of Japan was oriented toward learning from and imitating the West, yet the country is situated in Asia and has firmly maintained its traditional culture. The ambiguous orientation of Japan drove the country into the position of invader in Asia, and resulted in its isolation from other Asian nations not only politically but also socially and culturally. And even in the West, to which our culture was supposedly quite open, it has long remained inscrutable or only partially understood.22
Murakami’s Superflat projects, including Little Boy, strive to resolve Ōe’s conundrum by radically compressing the very opposites that scar each man, as an artist and an intellectual. But rather than despair, Murakami identifies specific cultural and political meanings in the creation and consumption of a graphic subculture of fantastic cartoons, a subculture that operates within a globalized system of borderless information and technology. To paraphrase Mamoru Oshii’s cybernetic agent Motoko Kusanagi, reflecting on her quasi-human, quasi­virtual condition in the anime classic Ghost in the Shell, simulated reality is all there is. For Murakami, this Orwellian brave new world is cause for celebrating a new frontier of art.
After wandering around the stalls of Akihabara, I took the train to Asaka, a suburb of Tokyo where Takashi Murakami lives and operates his Kaikai Kiki factory. A downpour had cooled the midday heat only slightly and left the clumps of bamboo and wild roses in the parking lot bowed over with dew. I entered one of several quonset huts, donned slippers, and navigated my way around a six-foot-wide sculpture of the manga-esque head of a little girl, pink pigtails sprouting straight up into the air (fig. 5.8).The artist, known as “Mr.,” is one of several young protégés who work under Murakami’s tutelage and collaborate with him on large projects. Assistants were applying paint to the surface with traditional Japanese brushes, and even half-colored, the little girl’s expression captured the fanatical cuteness that is the essence of “Poku” imagery. Representing the “head culture” of otaku subculture and Japanese Neo Pop, all brains and psyche, the disembodied face of Mr.’s little girl emerges as the perfect mascot for Murakami’s Little Boy.

5.1. Akihabara

5.2. Takashi Murakami’s shokugan figure Miss ko, found in an Akihabara shop
5.3. Scene from Akira (p. 18), 1988
5.4. Hello Kitty, 1993. Production design
5.5. Chinatsu Ban, After Picking Up Panties, 2002. Acrylic on panel and Japanese paper, 194 x 130.3 x 3 cm
5.6. Mahomi Kunikata, Sound of Body and Mind Freezing: The Story of Gyūi No. 1, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 91 x 72.7 cm. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
5.7. Hideaki Kawashima, Worm-Eaten, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 116.7 x 116.7 cm. Courtesy Tomio Kayama Gallery, Tokyo
5.8. Mr., YI Subuppy (Izuzuppy), 2004. FRB (fiber-reinforced polymer) and acrylic, 166 x 193 x 246 cm. Courtesy Tomio Kayama Gallery, Tokyo

Munroe, Alexandra. “Introducing Little Boy” In Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures, edited by Takashi Murakami, pp. 241–61. Exh. cat. New York: Japan Society; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

1 The exhibition Superflat toured Parco Tokyo and Parco Nagoya in 2000; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, all in 2001. The second exhibition in the series, Coloriage, was presented at Fondation Cartier, Paris, in 2002.

2 For example, see Noriaki Kitazawa, Kyōkai no bijutsushi [Art history of the border] (Tokyo: Brücke, 2000).

3 Takashi Murakami, discussion at Japan Society, New York, 10 November 2004.

4 Susan J. Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 211.

5 Freda Freiberg, “Akira and the Postnuclear Sublime”; cited in Napier, 197.

6 Takashi Murakami, interview with author, Asaka, 18 October 2004.

7 Takashi Murakami, discussion at Japan Society, New York, 10 November 2004.

8 Noi Sawaragi, interview with author, Tokyo, 14 April 2004.

9 Kenji Yanobe, quoted in Rachel Kent, Neo-Tokyo: Japanese Art Now, exh. cat. (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002), 6.

10 Yoshitomo Nara, Slash with a Knife (Tokyo: Little More, 1998).

11 Nara, quoted in “Interview with Yoshitomo Nara and the author [Marilu Knowde], Tim Blum translating, 19 June 1998, Santa Monica” (www.uwm.edu/Dept/inova/intertext.html, last accessed 21 August 2001).

12 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London and New York: Routledge, 1979), 114.

13 It is commonly agreed that Akio Nakamori’s series of articles, “Otaku no kenkyū” [Studies of otaku], which appeared in the manga journal Manga burikko in 1983, formed one of the first instances of otaku usage in public discourse. Nakamori described hard-core fans of manga and anime as otaku-zoku, or “otaku tribe,” and characterized them as obsessive and antisocial.

14 Keigo Okonogi, cited in Takashi Murakami, Kawaii! Vacances d’été, exh. brochure (Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2002).

15 Tamaki Saitō, “Otaku Sexuality,” in Kaichirō Morikawa, Otaku: Persona=Space=City, exh. cat. for Ninth International Architecture Exhibition of Venice Biennale (Tokyo: Gentōsha, 2004), 40.

16 Eugene A. Matthews, “Japan’s New Nationalism,” Foreign Affairs 82, no. 6 (November/December 2003): 76.

17 Napier, 30.

18 Matthews, 77. Matthews writes, “A plurality of Japanese now favor turning the country’s SDF into a full-fledged army. In 2000, just 41 percent of Japanese wanted to amend Article 9 along these lines; a year later, the figure had risen to 47 percent, and it would surely be higher today, given events in North Korea and terrorism in Indonesia and the Philippines.”

19 Takashi Murakami, discussion at Japan Society, New York, 10 November 2004.

20 Yumiko Iida, “Visible Nation/Ideology of Pleasure: Japanese Nationalism in the Age of Information Capitalism,” presentation details for Humanities Conference 2003, University of the Aegean, Island of Rhodes, Greece, 2–5 July 2003 (2003.humanitiesconference.com/ProposalSystem/Presentations/P000286, last accessed 23 December 2004).

21 “Tensei jingo” [Vox Populi, Vox Dei], Asahi shinbun, 24 June 2002; cited in John Nathan, Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose (New York and Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 20.

22 Kenzaburō Ōe, Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures (Tokyo: Kōdansha International, 1995), 117.

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