New York

“Little Boy”

Contemporary Japan is still at heart a defeated Japan. That was the central claim of “Little Boy,” the final installment of a series of exhibitions curated by Takashi Murakami around his signature concept, Superflat.

“Little Boy” was the code name for the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the exhibition aspired, in part, to account for the recurrence of themes relating to nuclear destruction in Japanese visual culture since the end of World War II. To this end, Murakami exhibited a number of clips from relevant live-action and animated science fiction. But the primary aim of “Little Boy” was to place these objects alongside others in relation to Japanese subculture. Like previous Murakami exhibitions, the show intermingled artworks with some of the greatest successes of the Japanese culture industries. For example, in the first gallery, clips and promotional by-products from the animated television series Mobile Suit Gundam (1979–80) were surrounded by an extensive array of merchandise from the Hello Kitty line, paintings by Murakami’s protégé Aya Takano, and a number of large character costumes for the regional mascots known as yuru chara (a winking world globe sporting red boots and a yellow construction helmet, a smiling persimmon wearing a pagoda cap, etc.) that testified to the exercise of character branding by municipal and prefectural institutions in Japan. It was across this rainbow of adolescence, coloring the Japan Society in hues of lime and tutu pink, that Murakami attempted to bridge “Little Boy” and its subtitle: “The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.”

A painting from Murakami’s 2001 “Time Bokan” series featuring a cartoonish, stylized mushroom cloud faced an installation that one understood to be ground zero of “Little Boy.” This installation consisted of two main elements, one of which was a series of plastic Godzilla figurines, from 1954 (the year of the original movie) to 1994. Godzilla is a well-known emblem of a Japan victimized in war and its aftermath: Awakened by an American hydrogen-bomb test—an act for which the Japanese were not responsible—Godzilla could only be stopped by a technology (known as the “oxygen destroyer”) premised on the indiscriminate destruction of life itself. Thus, Godzilla shares with most science fiction featured in the exhibition an obsession with the dystopian dimensions of technological modernism. But of all the science fiction in the show, Godzilla entertains the most compromised possibilities for the Japanese state and its citizens in facing the nuclear age.

The Godzilla figurines were set below the text of Article 9 of the postwar Japanese constitution, which was emblazoned on the wall in a lugubrious white on black. This document, in which Japan renounces its sovereign right to wage war or hold a military, is at the center of a set of paradoxes: Japan is to be a peaceful state without the means or right to belligerency; the United States occupation government drafted the Japanese constitution; the American military has a massive presence, at times even harboring nuclear arms, inside Japan; Japan itself has a world-class military, but it is only to be used for self-defense. Article 9 could have served as the backdrop for any number of the science-fiction series presented in the exhibition or the catalogue. Ultraman (1966–67) and Ultraseven (1967–68), Space Battleship Yamato (1974–75), Mobile Suit Gundam, and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–96) all involve the necessary arming of Japan for the purpose of self-defense, if not the defense of all mankind. To pair Article 9 with Godzilla, however, is to transform the document, long the backbone of popular and political struggle against remilitarization, into a symbol of powerlessness. Although the history of Japanese colonialism and violence has always been at the center of public debate about the relevance of Article 9, in “Little Boy” that history receded behind the tropes of victimization. The catalogue is straightforward: Article 9 “forced the Japanese people into a mindset of dependency” on the United States; “it cast Japan in the role of a ‘child’ obliged to follow America’s ‘adult’ guidance, and the nation willingly complied.”

And so it was from defeat and subjection that the exhibition moved to a contemporary Japan in a state of arrested development and to the second connotation of the name “Little Boy.” “Perhaps from this national trauma”—the summer of 1945—“did kawaii and otaku subcultures emerge in contemporary Japan,” Murakami writes.The term kawaii refers to the helpless, big-eyed “cuteness” of plush, plastic, and animated creatures and of prepubescent girls. Otaku, on the other hand, denotes the urban male recluse who invests endless hours and large sums of disposable income in the private consumption of products from the Japanese animation, manga, science-fiction, and music industries. It is the juvenility of the otaku, the meaninglessness of his activities, and the arrogant pride he takes in both that represented for “Little Boy” the dominant face of Japanese subculture.

Many of the objects that were on view in the show have long been the source texts of otaku consumption. Around any one of them, Murakami could have constructed a picture of the subculture by exhibiting fans’ various elaborations upon these source texts. An obvious choice would have been the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion, the characters and plotlines of which have been extensively appropriated by amateur animation, manga, and costume play, with results ranging from new episodes of warfare and psychodrama to pornographic reverie. But the subculture of Evangelion was barely mentioned, let alone exhibited. The animation itself was also nowhere to be found, and was instead oddly reduced to the theme of a group of pachinko machines in the lobby of the Japan Society. These exclusions constituted the extreme of what happened throughout “Little Boy.” Subcultural production itself was absent, with one telling exception.

That exception was the opening animation for the 1983 Japan Science Fiction Convention in Osaka, an event run by Japanese science fiction aficionados and known by the acronym DAICON. The animation—the creation of a group of college students—was surrounded by a large number of the cels and in-betweens used in its making. In subject matter, it seems a motion picture inventory of the ideal playroom of a cheeky twelve-year-old boy: In quick succession, a girl in a red Playboy bunny outfit battles a long list of characters from Japanese and American animation and comic books. It is only a step or two below most commercial successes of its day in terms of technical achievement. In fact, its creators went on to make nothing less than Evangelion. Thus, the type of creative culture spotlighted here, in the exhibition’s sole subcultural offering, was not that of the onanistic otaku. It was rather a culture of entrepreneurs, which is to say, individuals like Murakami who have transformed amateur obsession with pop culture into great commercial and aesthetic success.

“Little Boy” was the legitimate heir to the Superflat legacy in all its sweeping ambition and sprawling inconsistencies. “Superflat” first came into currency to characterize Murakami’s painting after 1996: lack of foreshortening and modeling; solid colors without gradation; clean, even outlines; and as little surface texture as possible. Murakami soon used the term to reduce over three hundred years of Japanese image-making, from seventeenth-century painting to contemporary animation, to the formal principles of his own practice. Thus, he retroactively cast his own art in the glow of a Japanese kunstwollen. And purportedly shaping those plastic values, at least in the present, has been a national spirit characterized by lack of politics, lack of ethical judgment, lack of action, and lack of historical perspective. The Japanese, like the plastic values of their art, are flat. The opening text of “Little Boy” may be regarded as a kind of thesis statement: “Japan may be the future of the world. And now, Japan is ‘Superflat.’ From social mores to art and culture, everything is super two-dimensional.”

Superflat has yet another ambition, more explicit in “Little Boy” than in Murakami’s earlier projects: the rearticulation of Japanese visual culture across the high/low divide. Murakami is not alone in this endeavor. Since the late 1990s, Noi Sawaragi, one of the foremost art critics in Japan (and a contributor to the catalogue), has written numerous essays and organized exhibitions guided by the thesis that high art is an arbitrary and largely nonperforming category in Japan. The armature of this argument had been previously constructed by art historians working on the nineteenth century, a period in which modern institutional categories of artistic practice (fine art, industrial art, craft, etc.) were first formalized in Japan. It has been Sawaragi’s contention that the most important creative practices in postwar Japan have thrived across, if not with disregard to, institutional hierarchies. The state of Japanese art since the 1990s, however, has provided his thesis the most fertile ground: The continuing tradition of department stores hosting art exhibitions, artists appearing as television-game-show contestants, television celebrities becoming prize-winning art-film directors and successful painters, and the pop and commercial practices of artists like Murakami.

In concept and content, “Little Boy” was much indebted to Sawaragi. Its panorama of products from the Japanese culture industries, subculture, and contemporary art realized in three dimensions this new art discourse in Japan. But what began in art history and criticism as an inquiry informed by some sense of dialectics had been stripped of methodology in “Little Boy,” as in the entire Superflat project. The fundamental problem is that Superflat is founded on a tautology: Curator and curated are one and the same. Murakami has commandeered a discourse in which his own practice is a central object. Among other things, this leads him to embrace lapses in critical method as the inevitable consequence of his own theories. For the homology between form and subjectivity—the original claim of the Superflat—implies that Murakami, ultimate Superflat painter, must also be the ultimate Superflat subject. Otherwise, Murakami is an exception to his own rule and the entire theory falls apart at its origin. His dreamcoat is brilliant. But it is not meant for weather.

Ryan Holmberg is a New York–based writer.