Graphic Design BA(Hons): Part Time CCS200 ● 1800 Word Essay January 2010
“Any engagement with Murakami’s catalogues more profound than a rapid skim is liable to leave the Western art consumer (at least one old enough to be unaffected by the current Western youth fad for all things otaku) floundering in a sea of unfamiliar signifiers, feeling hooked, intrigued yet vaguely ill-at-ease, not unlike Bill Murray’s character in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003).” - Dick Hebdige
In this essay I will be looking at Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami and examining the ways in which his practice is informed by the context in which his work is created. Context is defined as the social, political and/or cultural environment in which something exists or occurs. If something is removed from its original context and places into another context then its meaning, or reason for existing, will change.
Takashi Murakami is credited with founding with Superflat movement, which is a sub-culture of pop art. He began his career studying Nihon-ga (traditional Japanese art) at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, but became increasingly disillusioned with the artform and sought to pursue art that was more representative of modern day Japanese life. This longing caused him to become passionate about otaku culture, believing it reflected society as it currently is – consumerist and with a fascination for all things small. His work is affected by context in a number of different ways. His work is both mainly for and about otaku culture, so those unfamiliar with it may not completely understand it. Equally with those unfamiliar with Japanese culture on the whole. His way of working also seems quite commercial to westerners, who may consider his line of products ‘selling out’, but the Japanese accept that art and accompanying products will blend together, much like watching a movie, then going out to buy movie memorabilia.
‘Otaku’ is a Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests, particularly anime, manga and video games. Murakami’s work comments on this culture and its obsessive nature. It also comments on the ‘Kawaii’ or ‘Cute’ culture in Japan (Which Murakami says is hard to understand without digging deeper, like pop art in America and the need to understand consumer culture to relate to it). The goal of referencing this culture in the Superflat movement is to create a constant stream of buyers and suppliers – by appealing to the otaku market, it makes them feel part of something which they will in turn buy into. Westerners may see this as taking advantage, but this supply and demand cycle will create a sustainable art market in Japan, which is something it has not experienced since before the war.
As well as appealing to this otaku culture, Murakami’s products also appeal to younger children due to its simplicity and cuteness, and the older Japanese culture due to its comments on the taboo and sexual fetishism. Japanese sexual culture is more accepting of people’s fetishes, but it’s a strange phenomenon. It is similar to office workers going for drinks with their boss after work and getting drunk, whatever happens outside of the office stays outside of the office, and whatever you enjoy in your private life is never questioned as long as it stays private and does not interfere with other parts of your life. This is how Murakami is capable of making works such as ‘Hiropon’ Fig 1 and ‘My Lonesome Cowboy’ Fig 2. After creating them and receiving feedback, he found out that whilst otaku people generally ignored ‘Cowboy’, they loathed ‘Hiropon’. Murakami enlisted a consultant, Masahiko Asano, to find out why this was, to which he reported “‘Hiropon’ is like a satire, and anime figures are the object of affection for otaku people,”. When asked why Hiropon could not be the object of affection, Asano replied “can you masturbate to her? If not, it can’t be”....