Summary of Superflat
When Japanese artist Takashi Murakami coined the term Superflat in 2001, he launched one of postmodern art's most invigorated movements. Based on the compilation and compression of centuries' worth of Japanese "flat" art aesthetics, and inspired by the country's distinctively unique post World War II anime and manga craze, he inspired other artists to join him in putting Japan on the art world map. Often categorized as a Japanese form of Pop Art, Superflat has become an international phenomenon, infiltrating all areas of consumer culture from high to low art.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The flat of Superflat has dual meanings. It refers not only to the history of non-three-dimensional styles of Japanese art, but also remarks on the flat, shallowness of consumer culture, something the movement has been doubly said to either celebrate or critically exploit.
- Although primarily drawing upon contemporary Japanese subcultures, the influence of Pop Art and Neo-Pop Art on Superflat cannot be denied because of its use of modern popular culture as a continual source of fodder. Not only does this expand Pop's reach as a movement but solidifies its foundation upon which artists worldwide are perpetually influenced by the constant stream of imagery and messages fed to society via mass media.
- Superflat has successfully and significantly blurred the lines between fine art and commercial art with work that ranges from traditional painting and sculpture to digital art, graphic design, and film to fashion and product design and development. Because of this, it has revolutionized the appropriation of globalized visual culture toward creating and manufacturing creative forms of art that can be accessed and bought by audiences across all economic spectrums.
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Progression of Art
My Lonesome Cowboy
This sculpture, depicting an anime figure, shows a life-sized naked boy masturbating, as his white semen in stylized spirals, swirls around him like a lasso, forming a jagged shape above his head that is both oddly weaponized and plane-like. The boy has the wide-eyed, gleeful gaze and characteristic spiky hair of an anime character. In the late 1990s, what some art historians have called Murakami's "bodily fluids" stage, he depicted highly sexualized otaku figures, like this one, as well as his Hiropon (1997) which depicts a woman with oversized breasts that spray a stream of milk encircling her figure.
The work's exaggeration of sexual features evokes earlier shunga, or erotic images, from ukiyo-e, which often depicted exagerrated genitalia. Shunga's depictions emphasized the erotic encounter, whereas Murakami's figures are isolate and static, suggesting sexual prowess void of human connection. The art critic Roberta Smith wrote that Murakami's figures have, "the odd thrill of seeing a fictional cartoon, which normally inhabits a television screen, made three-dimensional and life size." This thrill of the fictional made real, along with the erasure of boundaries between otaku figurines and art world sculpture or between sexual imagery and children's cartoons, was both shocking and innovative in contemporary art and launched the artist's global career.
The title of the sculpture refers to Andy Warhol's film, Lonesome Cowboys (1968), and thus posits it as a wink to Pop art, an earlier movement which also drew inspiration from popular and commercial culture.
The work has become among the most famous works by the artist, due to its $15 million sale price at a 2008 art auction. The sale of the work was fiercely condemned in Japan, and critics remain divided. Art critic Grace McQuilten said the piece represented "commodity fetishism."
Oil, acrylic, fiberglass, and iron - Private Collection
This work presents Murakami's iconic Mr. DOB, a whimsical but maniacal mouse-like character, with many eyes and appendages, baring his shark-like smile while riding a stylized wave that swirls from upper left to the right center. The wave, a parody of Hokusai's ukiyo-e treatment in The Great Wave (c. 1830-1832) visually unites all three panels. The use of three panels, simultaneously suggests a modern Western triptych and a Japanese byobu, or traditional folding screen, implying that Mr. DOB conquers both worlds and flattens the distinctions between them.
Mr. DOB is known as Murakami's alter ego. Its name is a contraction of "dobojite, dobojite," a dada-like phrase taken from the manga Inakappe Taisho, which means "why? why?" DOB is always spelled out on the character's face, D on one ear, B on the other, his round face representing the O, so that in all of his transmutations, he is instantly recognizable. The use of text reflects the influence of the works of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who were introduced to the Japanese art world in the early 1990s when Murakami created Mr. DOB. The influence of anime and manga can also be seen in DOB's cartoon-like appearance and large eyes, and the manga catlike character Doraemon influenced his large red open mouth and nose.
Viewers cannot avoid the obvious connection to Disney icon Mickey Mouse, which is here transfigured into a very different figure, with its snarling smile and crazed expression, as if the character embodies the antagonism the artist felt toward America and the Western art world at the time he first created the figure in 1993. The piece draws upon the Japanese use of ma or negative space, and its many layers of paint, resembling traditional lacquer, have been scraped, to create the sense of a Japanese folding screen, in ruin. The title refers to U.S airplanes that were stationed at bases in Japan that frequently flew over the artist's childhood home, and suggests that Mr. DOB, riding his wave, is a kind of Japanese counter force, given impetus by art.
Murakami said, "The work is not particularly representative of anything. It is simply a combination of all the available techniques that I had at the time," but the character became the signature of his brand. His aim, as he said, was "market survivability - the universality of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doraemon, Miffy, Hello Kitty, and their knock-offs produced in Hong Kong," As art historian Grace McQuilten wrote, Murakami's DOB functions as "commercial branding," and in the realms of art and commerce, "celebrates the depthless nature of consumerism."
Murakami has depicted the character in many works, like his neon colored and psychedelic treatment Hands Clasped (2015). Mr. DOB has been widely reproduced in posters, t-shirts, key chains, and bubble gum dispensers, among other products. Yet, as art critic Christopher Knight noted, "Murakami is the first major artist, Eastern or Western, to make our pervasive culture of branding a primary subject."
Synthetic polymer paint on three canvas moderns - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
A to Z Memorial Dog
This large-scale sculpture depicts a standing white dog in cartoon simplification with closed eyes, its face serenely reminiscent of a Buddha in meditation, posed in some moment of inner stillness. The use of white, evoking traditional Japanese associations of the color with the spirit or ghost world, creates a sense of the otherworldly, despite the cute familiarity of the cartoon dog,
Nara first began depicting this cartoonish figure of a white dog in the 1990s. It has become one of his most iconic works, reproduced on t-shirts, pull toys, stuffed toys, and other items, and also made into a popular children's book, The Lonesome Puppy (2008). He also depicted a white dog in other works, most notably his Aomori ken (Aomori dog) a two story high sculpture of a white dog that is a signature work at the Aomori Museum of Art in Japan.
With these large scale works depicting animals, Nara draws upon the Japanese and Chinese tradition of komainu, large statues, usually of lions and dogs, meant to convey awe and power when placed at the gateways of temples. As a result, the work evokes a sense of the sacred.
The cuteness of the figure, suggests a child's unique perception of scale and feeling, where a pet dog may loom over one and also take on a larger-than-life significance in one's life. Yet the overall effect is melancholic, as the dog conveys a sense of both self-isolation and loneliness, as if embodying Nara's description of his own childhood, "I could communicate better with animals, without words, than communicating verbally with humans." A child's toy here becomes a monumental artwork drawing the contemporary viewer in with its charming simplicity, while hooking the viewer with its totemic and symbolic feeling.
Fiberglass - Yoshino-cho Park in Hirosaki, Japan
This print, depicting a post-apocalyptic future, shows a glowing city where living skyscrapers with cute human faces curve up like sinuous tubeworms into the sky. In the center of the work, a yellow and black patterned form like that of an unknown species, part animal, part human torso, looks out of its inky black face with one red and one yellowish green glowing eye, rising out of the earth to confront the viewer. In the foreground a flowering tropical forest is curiously out of scale, as some blossoms are the height of palm trees, suggesting a world mutating into riotous new forms. The sky between the buildings opens up to a plethora of stars at the top of the print, radiating in different colors and intensities of glow, creating a correspondence with the eyes and antennae of the living buildings. A golden phoenix trailing a red ribbon flies in the left upper middle distance.
The effect is ambiguous, suggesting both a city haunted by spirits, and a world where human inventions have evolved into amorphous beings. The work is both melancholic, as if permeated by a sense of ecological loss, and vibrant, wondrous with a sense of what new strange beings might evolve. The artist has said, "The evolution of human civilization is great; humankind thinks nature precious, but it is difficult for humankind and nature to coexist. I represented these two souls that cannot understand each other through the images of buildings and mountains."
Aoshima's works begin as sketches that she transfers into Adobe Illustrator, employing countless vectors, modified into curvilinear, organic shapes, before filling with color. She combines this modern technology with what she calls, "the re-appropriation of ukiyo-e's linear aesthetics," and her subject matter is often influenced by ukiyo-e, as she notes the influence of, "Katsushika Hokusai, especially his art depicting yokai (the supernatural beings of Japanese folklore)," upon her work.
This work was displayed in New York City's Union Square subway station as part of Murakami's 2005 Little Boy project and was also used in the artist's first animation, a seven-minute collaboration with New Zealand animator Bruce Ferguson. The animation, displayed on five screens, begins with this image, and then moves into images of a flooded forest, a red cemetery inhabited by various ghosts, a screaming head filling the screen as bees swarm out of its mouth, and a new day with blue skies, fairies, and a rainbow. The art curator Paul Schimmel has described it as "one of the most extraordinary pieces of animation ever made by an artist, period... The use of the sweeping horizontal composition and the movement and timing of it are absolutely breathtaking."
Chromogenic print - Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/Galerie Perrotin
V W X Yellow Elephant Underwear, H I J Kiddy Elephant Underwear
This work depicts two yellow elephants with pink toenails and brown ears, wearing underpants that have a bright pattern of stars, elephant heads, circles, and little underpants. The large elephant stands on a lime green rectangular platform. Behind the elephant is a heap of dung made of brightly colored rings. The smaller elephant, standing on a lime green square, at first seems to suggest that this is a mother and her calf, but the underpants disrupt that assumption, conveying that, whatever their relationship, neither is fully grown-up. Because they are wearing clothing, the figures appear to be stuffed toys, but their boxy forms are also reminiscent of the paired statues of powerful animals that traditionally guarded the entrances to Japanese sacred places.
Elephants and underwear are the artist's signature motifs, also expressed in paintings and drawings. This was her first sculpture, shown at New York City's Dorris C. Freedman Plaza as part of Murakami's exhibition Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture. The image of elephants come from the artist's childhood, but are also, as the art critic Roberta Smith noted, the "bright, patterned, underpants," are "distilled emblems of innocence and femininity." The artist has said of both motifs, "These things are like talismans. It's scary to imagine that someday I won't exist in this world anymore. I am troubled by the urge to run away from this fear. Elephants make me feel safe. They have saved me many times." It is this element of psychoanalysis, cloaked within a disarming appearance of cuteness that makes Ban's work distinctive, both emblematic of gender and of national constructs. As curator Tom Eccles noted of the two elephants, "They're ...both familiar and uncanny."
Fiber-reinforced plastic, steel, acrylic paint, urethane - Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
This work shows another of Nara's signature subjects, a girl with a jagged haircut who, standing in negative space, stares forward with wide eyes. Her large eyes, whimsically colored in subtle variations of green, orange, and yellow refract pinpoints of light and suggest depths of feeling that both draw in the viewer and remain undisclosed. Combined with her posture and the flat line of her mouth, her stare becomes both confrontational and meaningful, its intensity contrasting with the kawaii cuteness. The girl's features are precisely outlined, as is her figure against the broad flat background, While the artist's color palette reflects his later work, using softer more subtle tones, the reliance upon line, as seen as the curve of her downturned mouth, her jaw and lower face as if holding back words, all emphasized by the echoing curve of the neckline of her clothing, create the work's effect of powerful, ambivalent feeling.
While art critics have noted the traditional Japanese elements employed in Nara's work, they have often attributed the influence to manga and anime. But Nara has said that such is not the case and that his work draws upon the earlier Japanese traditions like ukiyo-e. Though unlike the woodblock prints, Nara's images are painted on a large scale, and as New York Times art critic Kenneth Noland notes, "Nara blends high and low by combining the saturated color and scale of postwar abstract painting with a cast of cute but demonic cartoon characters."
Nara has said that his many images of a single girl are images of himself, the crooked haircut reminiscent of his haircut in childhood. The children are representative of some inner self with a sharp, antagonistic intelligence, and a dark feeling at odds with the adult world. As the art critic David Pagel wrote, "The dark side of childhood may not be something adults like to think about. But it takes haunting shape in Yoshitomo Nara's wide-ranging exhibition... its presence all the more potent for being subdued." What Pagel called, "Nara's signature style - of nuanced cartoons," changed contemporary art by using cartoons to create portraits full of ambiguous and haunting feeling.
Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection
Eye Love SUPERFLAT
This work employs ninety-seven colors in a pattern combining the LV signature logo of designer Louis Vuitton with Murakami's own signature image of jellyfish eyes on a white background. The effect is both intricate and decorative, the flattened artwork being simultaneously seen as art and a pattern for wallpaper, fabric, or other consumer items. This image developed out of Murakami's collaboration with Louis Vuitton which began in 2002 and lasted until 2015, resulting in a popular series of handbags, as well as luggage, and other items. While working on the collaboration, Murakami began developing the image of jellyfish eyes as a signature of his own brand.
Murakami has often been called "the Japanese Andy Warhol," for his mix of art and consumerism that challenges the distinction between the two. However, art critics remain divided as to whether his work is a critique of global consumerism or simply an exploitation of it. Following the noted success of the commercial line, the artist recreated the same patterns and images as artworks, creating this pattern on different color backgrounds, at first black and white, then blue and pink, which were shown at noted art museums. His 2007 "© Murakami" show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art included a Louis Vuitton boutique featuring his products. While art critic David Hickey criticized the show as having "turned the museum into an upscale Macy's," while art critic Christopher Knight noted, "The copyright symbol reads as a defiant, paradoxical assertion that the artist - not the private collector or public museum - retains perpetual ownership of the art-idea." Eye Love Superflat, in all its permutations from artwork to consumer object, brings that concept of the object as the artist's copyrighted "art-idea" to contemporary art.
Acrylic on canvas laid on board - Private Collection
Across Two Hundred Years We Send Our Blessings
This color-saturated painting creates a fantasy world that both evokes the Japanese past and suggests a futuristic world. In it are five girls, depicted in a style derived from manga and anime, who look out from a plethora of flowers. The thin elongated nude girl who vertically intersects the center of the canvas wears a vase containing plum blossoms on top of her head and to the side floats a small pink octopus and a Japanese umbrella. Both the flowers and the octopus allude to shunga, or pictures of spring, a noted style of ukiyo-e prints alluding to sexuality. The umbrella with tentacles emerging from it becomes a kind of futuristic life form, resembling a jellyfish, while the girl on the upper right, wearing a traditional kimono, appears to have rabbit ears. The top of the work, with its red streaked sky and darker border is also reminiscent of ukiyo-e prints, and scattered throughout the image are bits evoking the landscape or motifs of traditional Japan.
The overall effect of these floating figures and the world they inhabit is fantasy, and the artist has described her desire to be released from the gravity of social expectations and adult constraints. Her androgynous figures reflect a kind of suspension from the demands of adulthood, inhabiting a complex world that is more compelling than reality. As the art critic Akiko Miki has written, "Takano suggests that it is a vision that surpasses the reason of the real world."
Oil on canvas - KaiKai Kiki Co., Tokyo, Japan
Beginnings of Superflat
Japan has a centuries long tradition of "flat" art. The term generally refers to an aesthetic seen in the country's artistic output spanning many movements, styles, and forms defined by characteristics such as bold outlines, flat coloring, and a decided lack of natural perspective, depth, and three-dimensionality. Crossing periods of history and shifts in culture, "flat" has remained a strong identifier of Japanese art, all of which influenced the development of Superflat. It is only through the lens of viewing this long history that one can fully grasp the compilation that makes up this contemporary art movement, one directly informed by and drawn from all its parts into a modern lexicon.
Ukiyo-e, the inexpensive woodblock prints that became popular during the Edo period of Japan, influenced Superflat in both its motifs and style. These works employed strong outlines, broad flat areas of color, and depicted a variety of commercially popular subjects including landscapes, kabuki actors, bijin-ga (images of beautiful women), scenes from everyday life, and shunga (pictures of spring) which were explicitly sexual. A number of Superflat artists like Takashi Murakami, Chiho Aoshima, and Yoshitomo Nara not only draw upon the style of ukiyo-e but also directly reference its famous images. Nara's In the Floating World (1999) is a series of sixteen images that posit his cartoon-like characters within the settings of renowned Japanese artist Hokusai's Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-1832). But his version is interjected with expressions like "No Fun!" or "Slash with a knife," decontextualizing the historical piece into a contemporary sensibility. Similarly, Murakami's 727 (1996) depicts his recurrent character Mr. DOB in a setting evocative of Hokusai's The Great Wave (c. 1830-1832). As Aoshima has described, it is primarily "ukiyo-e's linear aesthetics" that can be seen in Superflat, though ukiyo-e itself derived those same linear aesthetics from the centuries old tradition of Japanese painting.
Manga and Anime
Modern manga, a term used to refer to Japanese comic books, has deep roots in Japanese culture and art. Some art historians have suggested that the genre is derived from 12th century ink scrolls that combined narrative with imagery. The term manga, meaning whimsical pictures or drawings, became commonly used in Japan in 1798 with the publication of Santō Kyōden's picture book Shiji no yukikai (1798). Manga was influenced by and developed toward its modern form during the late Edo period's ukiyo-e explosion. Hokusai's Hokusai manga (1814), although not a manga in the modern sense, but a print series based on his sketchbooks, became a Japanese best seller, resulting in the publication of fifteen volumes in the 1800s. His supernatural series, depicting ghosts from Japanese folklore and kabuki theatre, influenced Superflat artists like Chiho Aoshima.
Modern manga and anime are both credited to the artist Osamu Tezuka, who is called both "the father of manga," and "the father of anime." His best-known work was the enormously popular manga series Mighty Atom (known as Astro Boy worldwide). Under Tezuka's direction, the series also pioneered anime, which is a style of hand drawn or computer generated animation, with the launch of the animated series Astro Boy in Japan in 1963. An English language version appeared in the United States that same year. Featuring a twelve-year-old boy, drawn cartoon style, the series reacted to the nuclear age through a futuristic world, and developed the themes that would dominate manga and compel the popularity of the genre.
In Japan manga is read by all ages of the general public and has subsequently spawned a wide range of genres including comedy, historical drama, science fiction, fantasy, suspense, and horror. Anime has also generally followed through all these genres.
The term otaku, was coined in 1983 by the columnist Akio Nakamori in an essay published in Manga Burikkio, to identify a subculture of obsessive manga and anime fans. The term, meaning "your residence," is used as a formal way of addressing someone, but when used among those whose relationships would require the more natural 'you' denotes social awkwardness. Otaku is a male dominated subculture, its members noted for being not only overly obsessed with a chosen niche in anime or manga but also for seeing these fantasy worlds as more real than real life. As New York Times critic Arthur Lubow wrote, "The typical otaku is a young male, and some of the manga and the plastic figures are explicitly sexual, often blatantly pedophiliac; even when they aren't, the otaku tends to relate to his collection, with caresses and ministrations, as to a girlfriend - if he had a girlfriend."
In 1989 Tsutomu Miyazaki, an otaku, murdered four children and a horrified Japanese public adopted an even more negative view of the subculture. Subsequently, in the 1990s a number of writers from the anime and manga fields published various articles to try and counteract those negative views with some success. During the same time, Murakami began to argue that otaku culture was uniquely Japanese, and began to use its motifs and style in his own work, as seen in his first sculpture Miss Ko2 (1997), an anime and manga inspired sculpture of a waitress who wants to be a rock star. He debuted the work at an otaku convention, making the point that the subculture was a key part of his work.
The term is still used as a pejorative in Japan, meaning an anime geek or nerd who is unable to deal with reality. In a Cultural Studies Review article in 2014, the scholar Yuji Sone wrote that the term remains "a complex and elusive term." But in the West, attitudes have become more positive, as was seen when Hayao Miyazaki's anime Spirited Away (2001) won an Academy Award. In 2005, critic Arthur Lubow noted, "Anime and manga have become global signifiers of cool."
Kawaii, a term referring to all that is cute, is another aspect of Japanese subculture. It incorporates elements of cuteness into manga and anime characters. Critic Lubow wrote," If you were to draw a map of Japanese popular culture... grossly oversimplified but still useful...you might say that male-oriented otaku culture lies at one pole and that the female domain of kawaii (cuteness) is situated at the other. " The most famous example of kawaii is the global sensation Hello Kitty, which was created by Yuko Shimizu and designed by Yuko Yamaguichi in Japan in 1974.
Murakami has developed a number of kawaii characters, including the toddlers KaiKai and Kiki. He began exploring kawaii motifs in the mid 1990s and has said, ''I found a system for what is a cute character,'' through the employment of a circle with two eyes and a smile placed in the lower half. Yoshitomo Nara's works have been consistently kawaii with his depictions of cartoonlike children and animals. Other artists like Chinatsu Ban have also predominantly worked in the genre.
The founder and leading theoretician of Superflat, Takashi Murakami, like many youth of his generation, was obsessed with otaku culture in his teens, and that culture was a dominant influence upon his development of Superflat.
Early on as an artist, Murakami pursued several different directions. He initially studied Nihonga, or traditional Japanese style painting, and his work and theories were deeply informed by knowledge of traditional Japanese art styles and techniques. Yet his first noted works were conceptual pieces like Randoseru Project (1991), for which he dyed hides from exotic animals and made them into eight brightly colored randoseru, or Japanese schoolbook bags. The use of hides reflected the influence of contemporary artist Damien Hirst, but the project also prefigured Murakami's later projects where Japanese motifs were incorporated into consumer items.
An extended trip to New York in 1994 inspired Murakami to reevaluate his aesthetic practice, and he began to reintegrate his Japanese identity and what he saw as essential Japanese culture into his work. Murakami felt that the traumatic effects of World War II, the bombing of Japan and its defeat and occupation, found expression through otaku culture's cartoon imagery. He said, "World War II was always my theme - I was always thinking about how the culture reinvented itself after the war." The preoccupation with reinventing culture was the underlying theme of Murakami's creation of the Superflat movement, not unlike the Pop Art movement, which also borrowed heavily from popular culture to reinvent its artwork.
Hiropon Factory 1989 and KaiKai Kiki Co. Ltd.
In 1989 Murakami founded the Hiropon Factory in Tokyo. It was a creative workshop, and its name referred both to Andy Warhol's famous Pop art Factory and hiropon, a name for the methamphetamines available over the counter during World War II.
It was in this workshop that the postmodern art movement Superflat was born. In 2000 Murakami wrote the essay "A Theory of Superflat Japanese Art" (2000), which described Superflat as drawing upon the flat compositions of Japanese art, as seen in the "Japanese style" art of Nihonga, and particularly ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints of the Edo period that had continued to carry through to contemporary manga, anime, otaku, and kawaii. "Flattening," in Murakami's definition meant not only the flatness of pictorial composition, but also the flattening of the divisions between high and low art, between genres of art, and between art and consumer culture that, he argued, was characteristic of Japanese culture.
Superflat Art Exhibition
In 2000, Murakami brought his Superflat concept to fruition by curating an art exhibition of the same name at the PARCO department store's museums in Tokyo. In 2001 he expanded the exhibition, which included 19 artists, to America where it toured the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis, and the Seattle Henry Art Gallery. Along with Murakami's work, the show included paintings by Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshima, and Aya Takano; photographs by Masafumi Sanai and Chikashi Suzuki; the fashion of 20471120; anime by Koji Morimoto and Yoshinori Kanada; manga by Henmaru Machino, Kentaro Takeku, and Histoshi Tomizawa; the design firm groovisions; the sculptor Bome; and works by Katsushige Nakahashi, Shigeyoshi Ohi, Enlightenment, and SLEEP. The works combined the flatness of traditional Japanese art, emphasizing outline and broad areas of color, with the strategies and techniques of Western media and mass production. The show was met with critical acclaim and some art historians felt that Superflat became a lasting movement primarily because of the vast American interest.
Elizabeth Brown, curator of the Henry Art Gallery, said of the show, "In Japan, Generation X or twenty-somethings are known as shinjinrui, literally 'new human race.' This exhibition presents the artwork of the shinjinrui, young artists fueled by a culture saturated with Hello Kitty and other cute symbols, computer games, anime, and manga, and often motivated by a desire to revolt against the very consumerism that those symbols represent." Superflat similarly appealed to the younger generation in America and Europe, where manga, anime, and Japanese video games like the hit Pokemon series had already reached a wide audience.
In 2001, the same year Superflat was launched internationally, Murakami reconfigured Hiropon Factory as a commercial company called KaiKai Kiki Co. Ltd. The company, named after two of Murakami's manga characters, had an office in Tokyo and a studio and office in New York. It supported emerging artists and promoted the work of affiliated artists like Chiho Aoshima, Aya Takano, and Chinatsu Ban. At the same time the company produced Murakami's work, its offices in Tokyo focusing on Asian markets and its New York office and studio focusing on the European and North American market. In 2003 Murakami opened a third studio in Tokyo devoted to animation.
From the beginning, the organization has been structured on a vertical model, based upon the traditional Japanese artistic model, of a master teaching his disciples by involving them in various stages of his own creative work and product. This production process has allowed for the creation of innumerable artworks and consumer items, as Murakami has said, without the factory model, "I could have never produced this many works this efficiently, and the work wouldn't be as intense."
Of the seven current artists (amongst cast of dozens of others filling various roles) who are members of KaiKai Kiki, five are women, and the company has lauded the feminist perspective of their works. However, the company continues to receive criticism, as some suggest that Murakami's assistants are merely cheap labor or, additionally, that his works are not his own productions. He has attempted to reply to both charges by saying, "I think of myself as a grand chef at a three-star restaurant. And the young people working in the studio are the apprentices...Some overreact, saying that I'm exploiting their labor . . . and pay them just pennies. But that's not true. They also have a dream of becoming a grand chef in future." In fact, this model is not uncommon for many art stars today, like fellow American Pop artist Jeff Koons.
Superflat: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Superflat paintings draw upon the long tradition of Japanese painting aesthetics that include the use of strong outlines, flat planes of color, and a lack of three-dimensionality. As Murakami has described, "I'd been thinking about the reality of Japanese drawing and painting and how it is different from Western art. What is important in Japanese art is the feeling of flatness. Our culture doesn't have 3-D." Yet these modern versions are distinctive with their pop cultural appeal, styling borrowed from graphic design that lends an almost poster feel, fantasy imagery, bold cartoon-like hues, and characters and content inspired by modern manga and anime.
A number of Superflat artists work in sculpture in a decidedly Pop art fashion. Works range from life-sized, museum quality pieces to figurines mass-produced for consumers. This flattening of the distinction between a collectible figurine and a fine art sculpture is a signature innovation of Superflat; the idea that one figure can be recreated in a number of formats from stand alone art work to consumer trinket.
Murakami and Nara are good examples of this cross breeding. Murakami has created life-sized, highly sexualized fine art sculptures based upon otaku culture as seen in his Hiropon (1997) and My Lonesome Cowboy (1999). Alternately, he has produced kawaii works like Panda (2002), which developed into collaboration with the designer Louis Vuitton, and was reproduced into various consumer items. Nara has created a number of sculptures like Your Dog (2002), depicting a cartoonish white dog, that range from monumental installation pieces to stuffed toys and small figurines.
The sculptor Bome is known for his bishojo, or beautiful girl figures, based upon anime characters. Bishojo is derived from the ukiyo-e genre's bijin-ga (portrayals of beautiful women), but translated into a contemporary sculptural idiom where anime characters become collectible figurines. Bome's sculptures mirror anime's combination of exaggerated sexual characteristics with cute faces. Working for the Kyoto Kaiyodo Company, he has produced countless anime figurines, mass marketed as collector's items, and garage kits that allow collectors to create their own figurines.
Superflat's theory and practice includes all elements of lifestyle within its context, mirroring otaku's preoccupation with an invented world that takes over reality. As a result, the 2001 Superflat Exhibition included work by the fashion design boutique, 20471120, formed by Masahiro Nakagawa and Azechi Lica in 1994 in Osaka Japan. 20471120, named for a date that Nakagawa chose as a day when "something will happen," began exhibiting in the Tokyo Collections fashion show in 1995. Their street wear clothing line became widely popular with Tokyo's hip generation. By 1999 Nakagawa became interested in recycling. They developed the Tokyo Recycle Project and asked art and fashion professionals to donate a garment and answer questions about its associations. Then the team would take the garment apart and reassemble it, giving it back to the owner in its new configuration. Nakagawa created a number of manga characters to provide a storytelling role for the project. The project was meant to critique consumerism, to emphasize frugality, and to create meaningful connections between people and their possessions that 20471120 felt was lacking in contemporary life.
The most famous collaboration between Superflat and fashion was undoubtedly Murakami's handbag design created with the noted fashion designer Louis Vuitton. Launched in 2003, the collection was remarkably successful with $300 million in sales, and subsequently, expanded to include luggage and other accessories. Other designs for Vuitton by Murakami followed, including "character handbags," depicting his panda.
The 2001 Superflat exhibition included design by SLEEP, Enlightenment (a design group founded by Hiro Sugiyama), and groovisions. Groovisions, a design studio formed in Kyoto in 1993, exhibited thirty-three of its life-sized unisex figures, Shiny Happy Chappies, all wearing the same clothes but with different hairstyles. While otaku culture has been viewed as isolated from reality, the viability of the subculture depends upon a like-minded community of fans adopting the same lifestyle. The Chappie figures, displayed around Tokyo wearing various work, leisure, or sports apparel, were visual representations of such a community. They became so popular that Chappie furniture and currency were developed, as the designers created a world for the figures to inhabit. The studio has continued to evolve, working in graphic, stage, music, and video design and has become a noted cultural presence. Groovisions is noted for creating CD designs and music videos for FPM and RIP SLYME, as well as corporate brands like 100%ChocolateCafe, working with Japanese television series like "JAPAN BRAND," and "NEWS ZERO," and developing apps like their Chappie app for cellphones.
Other artists like Chiho Aoshima use modern graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator to create digital works that are then printed. The prints, in their very essence are flat vehicles, and also expand the Japanese history of using printing processes as viable tools for fine art presentation.
Also in the 2001 Superflat exhibition were noted manga artists Kentaro Takekuma, Henmaru Machino, and Hitoshi Tomizawa, causing manga to be viewed for the first time within an art world context. As a result, manga was introduced to a new audience, and reevaluated for its aesthetic qualities. Kentaro Takekuma is best known for his Super Mario Brothers (1992-1993) comics, and Tomizawa for his Alien Nine (1998-1999) series, featuring three girls in the sixth grade trying to capture various hostile aliens at their school. Tomizawa's work in particular influenced Superflat stylistically with his signature characters with large eyes and elongated limbs. The series was subsequently made into an anime, showing the close relationship between the two media. His Milk Closet (2000) featuring the Macrocosmic Invincible Legion of Kids, which tries to save other children caught in alternative universes, combined cute characters with violent encounters in alien worlds.
Anime and Film
A number of Superflat artists have worked in anime, particularly Kōji Morimoto, who is known for his animation work in Akira (1988) and Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), among others. A noted director of anime shorts, his "Beyond" was part of The Animatrix (2003) and his "Dimension Bomb" was included in Genius Party Beyond (2008). He also cofounded Studio 4°C, which has produced notable films like Princess Arete (2001) and Tekkon Kinkreet (2006), which won the Best Animated Film award at the 2007 Fantasia and the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. Other Superflat artists, even though primarily working in other media, have also created anime works. For instance, Murakami created Jellyfish Eyes (2013), which, though the film flopped in Japan, was screened as an art film in the United States. He also made 6HP (Six Hearts Princess) (2017), an anime series for television. Artists like Chiho Aoshima have incorporated animes like City Glow (2005) into their art exhibitions, a melding that some critics like Peter Schimmel feel has revolutionized both anime and the contemporary art world.
Later Developments - After Superflat
Superflat has influenced many artists like the American painter and graffiti artist Barry McGee and contemporary painter and sculptor Ronald Venture.
A number of artists in Miami including Romero Britto, Carol Bowman, Paul Cremata, Ceron, Jose Alvares, and Ed King developed the SoFlo Superflat movement in the 1990s. "Soflo" is slang for Southern Florida, a place where these artists felt life was lived two-dimensionally rather than three, and therefore should be expressed visually as such. Romero Britto's monumental sculpture Best Buddies Friendship Bear (2011), resembling a large stuffed toy holding two hearts, conveys the cuteness of kawaii. Like other Superflat artists, Britto has also launched a line of products based on his artwork.
The artists associated with SoFlo Superflat draw upon a diverse range of styles, influences, and subjects much like Superflat. For example, Carol Bowman's pastel Sunshine and Moon (2004) uses a contrasting color palette and geometric forms that convey a kind of contemporary approach influenced by Orphism. Also like Superflat, the SoFlo movement has tied itself to a subculture and flattens the distinctions between illustration, graphic work, graffiti, and design.
Murakami's branding and collaborations with designers has influenced other artists, as seen in Yayoi Kusama's 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
Superflat's inclusion of manga and anime as art has also elevated perceptions of the aesthetic value of those media. Noted cartoonists like Ed McGuinness and Frank Miller have been influenced by manga, and the American Fred Gallagher is noted for his manga work in Megatokyo (2000).
Superflat has become synonymous with both contemporary Japanese art and elements of mass produced consumerism, from high-end fashion products to globally marketed toys and figurines. As a result, today's popular culture on a worldwide level is saturated with various strains of Superflat. Murakami designed the cover of Kanye West's Graduation (2007) album and animated singer Pharrell Williams in 2014 in a musical collaboration.
Murakami and his company KaiKai Kiki have also played a significant role in mentoring emerging Japanese artists, including those associated with the company directly like Chinatsu Ban, Chiho Aoshima, Mahomi Kunikata, Aya Takano, and Mr. Rei Sato.