Yoshitomo Nara, Untitled (Annika Ström invite), ca. 1998, felt-tip pen on printed paper, 6 x 4 1/2".

Yoshitomo Nara, Untitled (Annika Ström invite), ca. 1998, felt-tip pen on printed paper, 6 x 4 1/2".

Yoshitomo Nara

THE LAST TIME Yoshitomo Nara’s cute ’n’ angry girls appeared in New York in a big way, they were under the umbrella of “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture,” Takashi Murakami’s provocative show at the Japan Society in 2005. There Nara’s little rebels were representatives—one example among many—of “superflat” art. Now that Nara has an exhibition all his own, “Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool,” at the Asia Society (until January 2), we can ask: Does he really fit the superflat mold?

In the “Little Boy” catalogue, Murakami explained how Japan came to be a superflat nation, entranced with flat, smooth surfaces and blind to the boundaries between high and low art: After Japan’s World War II defeat—its literal flattening by two American atomic bombs—the nation, though outwardly pacific, was seething. Japan became like a powerless little boy, suppressing its rage by retreating into a world of kitsch. “Contemporary Japan is at peace,” Murakami wrote. “But everyone who lives in Japan knows—something is wrong. . . . From social mores to art and culture, everything is super two-dimensional.”

Yoshitomo Nara, Untitled (Annika Ström invite), ca. 1998, felt-tip pen on printed paper, 6 x 4 1/2".

One aspect of superflatness, Murakami noted, was the rise of cuteness: “Kawaii (cute) culture has become a living entity that pervades everything”—from Hello Kitty and Pokémon to manga and anime. Murakami’s own trademark character, DOB, described as “the love child of Mickey Mouse and Sonic the Hedgehog,” could be found everywhere, from museums to gum packets. In postwar Japan, where rage is repressed, Murakami seemed to suggest, there can be no separation of Cute and State.

But “Nobody’s Fool” suggests that, in the case of Nara, there is. The curators, Melissa Chiu and Miwako Tezuka, have organized the show (whose title comes from a Dan Penn song) around three themes—isolation, rebellion, and music, especially punk rock—that they see as defining Nara’s sensibility. Though these categories seem arbitrary (almost any work could fit in any one), the show’s overall vibe is just right for Nara: thrown together, DIY. Nara, the exhibition demonstrates, isn’t just another superflat artist, sublimating his national rage through cuteness, but an international loner who wears his sensibilities on his sleeve. No one’s arguing that Nara’s work isn’t cute—just look at those lonesome fiberglass puppies, those globby, knobby black-and-white pots slopped with half-grammatical utterances (“Kind of suck never havin’ money”), and those puny wooden rooms with candy-colored doors (perfect for time-outs and tea parties), created with designer Hideki Toyoshima. But Nara’s work is not simply kawaii, the curators say. It’s kowa kawaii, or “creepy cute.”

Whatever you call it—“angry” or “hurt” would fit better than “creepy”—Nara’s cute is distinct from superflat cute. The difference is located in the cuts and bruises on Nara’s surfaces—in the torn lined paper he uses, in the bandages and tape that mend his paintings of wounded children, in the glopped paint on his pots, and in the slippages of spelling and locution that he loves. Consider his 2005 colored pencil sketch of a guitar girl on a cloud belting out Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Her eyes are shut. She’s brimming with feeling, singing the plangent and rebellious song (the one Kurt Cobain quoted in his suicide note: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”—which is also the title of a 1996 canvas of Nara’s). For all the outward plaintiveness, though, what really frees the drawing from superflatness is the handwritten mistake “Rock’n Roll will can never Die” (emphasis added). That jitteriness about which verb to use is the best crack in the superflat surface.

If Murakami is Japan’s Warhol, impersonal and deadpan, then Nara is its Keith Haring, sincere and expressive. The curators have carefully shown how Nara’s signature images—of sad kids, empty rooms, lost puppies—emanate from his life story. (He was a lonely, latchkey kid who tried, in vain, to adopt a puppy.) But those explanations aren’t necessary. The work emotes for itself. Take Fat Lipp, ca. 1992–2000, a drawing on graph paper of three girls pierced by arrows. Unlike Murakami’s DOB, with its wide-eyed, flat affect, these two-dimensional figures proudly announce the three-dimensionality of their hurt: They may look like paper dolls, but their wounds are spatial (the arrows puncture their flatness) and the spelling mistake (“fat lipp”) adds texture.

As if to demonstrate his distance from Murakami/Warhol, Nara has even taken on that most Warholian motif, the Campbell’s soup can. On a gallery invitation, he copied the cursive Campbell’s logo exactly and even wrote out the saying “M’m M’m Good!” just right. Yes, Nara could have been another Warhol if he’d wanted.

But where’s the can? Nara neglects it to concentrate on the Campbell’s soup kids themselves, and he remakes them entirely. They could never pass for the real thing. The dimply smiles of the originals have become smirks, and their crazy-wide-open eyes (a lot like DOB or manga eyes, come to think of it) have been narrowed—or, you could say, Nara-ed. No, Nara won’t represent Japan’s cute cult. At the bottom of the invitation card, a red-hooded mischief maker, scowling, holds a lighted match, ready to blow the Campbell’s soup scene—and superflatness—to smithereens. Kawaii!

Sarah Boxer is a critic and the author of a cartoon novel, In The Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary (Pantheon, 2001).