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.
- Japanese artist Takashi Murakami draws on Japanese popular culture to create his anime-like style he calls Superflat, notable for its flat planes of bright color. He uses and abuses the confluence between high and low art, producing both commercial luxury goods, cheap trinkets, and fine art.
- Exciting and unique, Yoshitomo Nara's children with piercing eyes have gained a cult following around the world. His works transform innocent images of wide-eyed characters and infuses them with horror and violence.
Do Not Miss
- British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
- The major Japanese art movement Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) often featured images of beautiful women, landscapes, kabuki theater, and scenes from history. They were very influential and inspirational for the Impressionist and later Western modernists.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 27 Mar 2018. Updated and modified regularly