Tokyo Story

Linda Yablonsky around Tokyo

Left: Artist Takashi Murakami. Right: A corridor in the Haneda airport. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

SHORTLY BEFORE 3 PM on Friday, March 12, the plane flying me to Tokyo for Takashi Murakami’s Geisai #15 art fair began its approach to Narita International Airport. Fifteen minutes later, the plane was still circling north of the city. From my window seat, I saw immense clouds of thick brown smoke rising from the ground. That is some big fire, I thought. The plane kept circling for another half hour, when at last the captain announced that Narita had been closed because of an earthquake.

At that moment I had no idea that this was not just any earthquake, or that it had brought a deadly tsunami to the coast, or that the nuclear power plant I could also see from the window was in trouble. Nor did I imagine that I would spend the next three days in a twilight zone between Hello Kitty and Armageddon.

Marika Shishido, a representative of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki company office in Los Angeles, was waiting for me at Narita, but my plane never got there. It was rerouted twice, over the course of several hours, before landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. I spent most of the night stranded in the terminal with I don’t know how many Japanese travelers, who simply grabbed what blankets were available and lay down to sleep on the floor or any available chair. Their remarkable calm and orderliness made the experience even more extraordinary.

Eventually, the roads reopened and Brad Plumb, a Kaikai Kiki staffer from New York, picked me up in a taxi and deposited me, just before dawn, at a hotel above a vertical shopping mall in Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, normally the busiest intersection in the world. Its bright lights and big-screen videos were all dark; only a few stragglers, most of whom had been left behind when the trains stopped running, were in the street. “I’ve never seen anything like this here,” Plumb said, as we discovered more people sleeping in the corridors of the mall as well as in the lobby of the hotel. Still more were seated before a TV, watching the news in silence. Laura McLean-Ferris, a journalist from London who had arrived for the fair early in the day, was in her room with a couple of other Kaikai Kiki people, thoroughly shaken by the quake and the tremors that continued throughout the night.

Left: Artists from Kyoto. Right: Ginza at night.

The Geisai fair, scheduled for Sunday, had been canceled, they told me. It was to have taken place at a convention center owned by the city, which had shut down all public buildings. Murakami was at his studio, communicating with the five hundred young artists who had signed up for the fair. We would regroup in a few hours and try to make the best of it.

While the disaster two hundred miles to the north was unfolding, Tokyo woke up to a degree of normalcy. Cell service returned, the stranded returned home, and shops reopened as usual. What could we do? The museums were closed, as were the galleries. So we went shopping. This wasn’t an entirely frivolous activity. Tokyo’s merchandisers are the quickest route to its very visual culture, and their fascinations provided a welcome distraction from the increasingly harrowing reports from the north.

Shibuya 109 is ground zero for teen acolytes of kogal fashion, the place where cosplayers go for their handkerchief-size skirts, platform shoes, sci-fi makeup, and bling. The mothership for Uniqlo was doing business as usual, albeit mostly with foreigners. At the opposite end of the style spectrum, Opening Ceremony—seven floors of distinctly American cool—had almost no other customers. Quieter still was Aoyama, a posh residential neighborhood where the impressive Prada, Valentino, Chloe, Comme des Garçons, Marc Jacobs, and other designer stores form a Chelsea-like ghetto of dazzling starchitecture on steroids.

Powered by this combustible mix of cartoon culture and high design, we made our way to the Kaikai Kiki building, where Murakami maintains a ground-floor gallery. At last, some art! In one of the two exhibition spaces, works from his private collection by Mark Grotjahn, Yoshitomo Nara, and Grayson Perry were on show with three new nudes-on-silver by Murakami—his Three Graces, as it were—that will head to London at the end of May for a show at Gagosian. (Murakami has caught the collecting bug pretty badly, especially for Nara.)

Left: Artist OB. Right: Murakami’s studio.

Based on paintings by the nineteenth-century artist Kuroda Seiki, one of the first Japanese to incorporate Western imagery in his work, the new Murakami works represent something of a departure from his Mr. Pointys, mushroom-cloud skulls, and flowering smiley faces. There were also a couple of modest, impressionistic paintings of a big-eyed young girl by OB, a shy nineteen-year-old from Kyoto who was in the gallery to meet us. She is one of fifteen young artists currently resident in a mentoring program that Murakami, an industry unto himself, has established in his suburban factory.

On a tatami-matted platform in the other room, three of his flowerball sculptures, in three different sizes, were paired with three figures of cute adolescent girls by Chiho Aoshima, one of the seven artists whose careers the Kaikai Kiki organization manages. We flopped on the mats between the sculptures to take stock of the situation at hand. The artworks are so adorable they were actually a comfort—at that point, the explosion of a reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, roughly 150 miles north of Tokyo, had become a major concern.

“You’re having a super unique experience!” said Murakami, when we moved upstairs to his city room–style offices, where the grandmaster of Superflat was busy writing for his forty thousand Twitter followers. Three ballot boxes intended for the public to vote on the best booths at Geisai sat on a counter, ready for storage until next season. (Murakami has held the Geisai fair twice a year since 2002, paying for it out of his own pocket.)

“Today, I’m living my worst nightmare,” he said, referring not to the cancellation of the fair but to the threat of a meltdown at the crippled power plant. He was still furious that an earthquake-prone island nation like Japan had put its faith in nuclear power, despite the devastation of radiation from American H-bombs in World War II and its consequent loss of national selfhood. As an example, he spoke of “Little Boy,” the 2005 show he organized for the Japan Society in New York, contending that his country’s infantilizing feel-goodism grew out of a collective denial of its own history.

Left: Jeffrey Lee, director of Shanghai’s Longmen Art Projects, with collector Greg Liu. Right: The Mandrake.

After a change of clothes, he took six of us out to dinner in a private room at Kikunoi, a restaurant where I had the finest dining experience of my life. Every dish of this thirteen-course meal was served in a bowl or on a plate made especially for that dish and that restaurant. The cost must have been astronomical, but what made the party feel even more strange and privileged was its surreal contrast to the continuing disaster, never really far from our minds.

Sunday morning brought news of multiple reactor problems and of the thousands who were still missing in the north. That made me wince; just hearing about it took my mind back to all the heartrending posters plastered on downtown walls in the days after 9/11, when no one could bear to admit they knew those people were gone. I felt both coddled by my hosts, who were continually concerned for my welfare, and lost. The dense crowds that normally populate Shibuya Crossing were still pretty thin and it was clear that life was not proceeding quite as usual.

Since there was no fair, the day began with a trip to Murakami’s studio, an industrial complex where a dozen of the fifty artists in his employ were working on new canvases or at computers, following the boss’s exacting directions. A couple of other Geisai orphans were visiting as well: Jeffrey Lee, director of Shanghai’s Longmen Art Projects, and San Francisco collector Greg Liu, whom Lee introduced as the man who paid $6.7 million for a Zhang Xiaogang painting at Sotheby’s three years ago. Chiang Ming-Yu, director of a year-old Geisai spinoff in Taipei, also poked her head in before McLean-Ferris and I sat down with Murakami for a conversation that took up the rest of the morning.

This was not the clowning Murakami he performs in public, but the thinking art advocate and micromanaging head of an international enterprise that operates around the clock, producing and distributing artworks and their commercial derivatives, directing careers, and organizing the Geisai. The Japanese, he said, have little interest in their own contemporary art and would rather spend their money on art from the West. The exception was manga, the first distinctly Japanese art since ukiyo-e, and he was all for promoting art made in Japan to his countrymen. “Our culture is all about marketing,” he said, adding that most people in Japan recognize him as the designer of a popular Vuitton bag rather than as a serious artist. “Everything is flat in Japanese culture,” he said. “Not deep or complex.”

Left: Dealers Jeffrey Rosen and Misako Rosen. Right: Takashi Murakami.

I asked about a sixteen-foot-tall Mr. Pointy canvas taking shape in the studio. Barnett Newman’s “zips” inspired it, he said, naming Donald Judd, Julian Opie, and Brice Marden’s monochromes as other sources, and On Kawara, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Yasumasa Morimura as the artists who paved the way for Murakami to be “super famous.”

After meeting six of the Kyoto student artists in their basement studios, I felt desperate to see something of the larger Tokyo art scene. My first stop was Misako & Rosen, a small five-year-old gallery owned by Jeffrey Rosen, a former Los Angeleno, and his Japanese wife, Misako. Rosen is also the director of Taka Ishii, Tokyo’s most important contemporary gallery, which originally inhabited the space. They spoke of a generational shift that has produced a new class of collectors supporting their artists—an international group—which Murakami never got when he was starting out. We looked through their catalogues and artists’ books, reluctant to leave, talking idly of artists on their roster like Nathan Hylden, Fergus Feehily, and Maya Hewitt, whose work was on the walls in a show I admired. But the couple had to get home to clean up the shattered crockery, fallen books, and general shambles that the earthquake had made of their apartment upstairs.

Cheered by the pink lanterns swaying from still-barren cherry blossom trees outside—yet another incongruous sight on this strange weekend—we headed for the Nakano Broadway Mall, an older, horizontal shopping complex and the belly of the otaku culture beast. I was transfixed by the sight of the Mandrake, a vast bookstore where men of all ages stood in the corridor outside it pulling graphic novels off exterior shelves, getting a fix for their manga jones. The whole mall seemed devoted to otaku action figures and comic books. There were magazines for belly dancers, sumo wrestlers, and cosplayers, and a ton of toys. We stopped into another gallery for Kaikai Kiki’s mentor artists and looked at a window display the company also manages. It featured another subgenre of manga painting devoted to “Boy Love,” images of gay male romance drawn solely by young women.

Captivating as this underground was, we returned to Aoyama and the Rat Hole Gallery, a sleek subsidiary of the Hysteric Glamour fashion label where I was surprised to find a show by New York artist Cheyney Thompson on view, and catalogues for previous shows by the likes of Isa Genzken, Roe Ethridge, Ellen Gallagher, and Roni Horn. No one else was there, though I learned that Thompson’s opening party, postponed by the earthquake, would be the following night.

Left: Teamlab’s Toshiyuki Inoko and Pixiv’s Takanori Katagiri. Right: Dealer Andrew Kreps with artist Cheyney Thompson.

What was there to do but go next door to browse Hysteric Glamour, the Trash and Vaudeville of Tokyo, before heading to another delicious dinner at Kanesaka sushi bar in the Ginza? Two of the five new media entrepreneurs (all men) who were to have been Geisai judges joined us.

Takanori Katagiri is president of Pixiv, a social networking site for illustrators with three million registered users, up to six hundred thousand of whom are Japanese artists. It’s a hobby site for nonprofessionals, Katagiri said, though he had organized a show of Pixiv artists with Murakami at the Nakano mall. The other judge, Toshi Inoko, runs Teamlab, a studio for digital artists and Web programmers and designers. After dinner, he brought us to yet another cheap store, Don.Ki.Hoti, where I was overwhelmed by displays of sequined skull telephones; Hello Kitty socks; and bright, fuzzy animal onesies for kinky sex play. (It also had housewares and a few kimonos.) What can I say? It was super freaky.

Spent by the day’s dizzying panoply, I returned to my hotel to pack for home. The next morning, just as I sat down to breakfast with Plumb, another earthquake struck. This one was only a six-pointer, but it was enough to be scary, especially as we were on the hotel’s twenty-fifth floor. The building started rumbling and swaying to and fro. My heart jumped into my mouth. The quake stopped after a minute, but by then I was on my way out of the hotel and abandoning my plan to visit more galleries that morning.

After another tremor at the airport, I flew back to New York, where I watched the news from Japan as obsessively as the book lovers at the Mandrake, feeling shattered. This trip constituted my first-ever visit to Tokyo, an amazing place with too much to see. On a future trip, perhaps, it will hold still long enough to come into focus.

Left: Kaikai Kiki’s Marika Shishido, Nao Tazaki, Brad Plumb, and Yayoi Shionoiri. Right: A view of the Haneda airport.