Superflat: How Murakami’s Popular Art Movement Emerged

Pop art is experiencing a revival in Japan thanks to Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami is a celebrated contemporary Japanese artist. In the early 90s, he rejected modern Japanese art, claiming it was boring and elitist. Instead, he took an interest in post-war Japanese pop culture, in particular the subculture known as Otaku, which also refers to people with a passion for anime, manga, and cosplay.

Over a decade, Murakami researched this culture, learning about its relationship with mid-20th century Pop Art and traditional Japanese art, and coined a term that referred to the flat (2D) form associated with Asian graphics, fine arts, and pop culture, as well as Japan’s cultural aesthetic: Superflat.

This postmodern art movement was created by a generation of artists born after World War II. It draws on external influences that are reinterpreted to connect with Japanese identity.

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Takashi Murakami, 'The Lion of the Kingdom that Transcends Death', 2018.

The Edo period’s direct influence

According to Murakami, manga, anime, and therefore Superflat have inherited the expressionist aesthetic of the Edo period (1625-1868), also known as the Tokugawa period, during which Japan was closed off to the outside world. During this time, the bourgeoisie grew as a result of their power and influence and became very involved in promoting the arts (especially wood engraving, ceramics, painting, and textiles).

The Superflat movement has three key influences: the main one is Rinpa, one of the most important schools of Japanese painting, represented in the work of Ōgata Kōrin. Both cheerful and mocking, his elegant paintings present an eccentric realism that depicts the merchant classes. His aesthetic played with light and shadow to emphasize the two-dimensionality of his subjects. The use of multiple points of view gave equal importance to the different elements in his pieces.

Another influence is the notable school of ukiyo-e, which is known for depicting popular characters and scenes from history and caricatures of kabuki theater actors. The work of Katsushika Hokusai, who captured urban life during this period with humor, energy, and powerful strokes, is an influential example of this particular style.

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Ōgata Kōrin, 'Wind God and Thunder God,' early 18th century.

The DNA of this artistic hybrid

Japanese society is fascinated with good taste, fashion, pleasure, and appearance. It is a country where classic meets modern, where one both creates and destroys. This is what gave rise to Superflat, which, according to Murakami, is a way to redefine traditional Japanese identity and talk about the country’s past, present, and future.

This movement has successfully blurred the boundaries between fine art and commercial art, producing works ranging from traditional painting and sculpture to digital art, graphic design, film, fashion, and product design. It has also successfully commercialized Japanese identity, making it desirable for the international market and something to consume.

"On the one hand, I am trying to show my compatriots what 'art' means on a global scale, and on the other hand, to foreigners, I am trying to show the essence of our current culture." - Takashi Murakami.
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Chiho Aoshima, 'The Birth of The Giant Zombie', 2001.

It draws on the visual concept of flatness, mixing traditional Japanese graphics with computer-generated graphics. It uses flat graphics, high contrast, distortion, and intense color. It is also characterized by elements of graffiti, such as scratches, "meaningless" strokes, and spontaneity, and modern anime and manga, in particular, placing importance on the eyes of different characters and where they are looking.

There can also be a Kawaii element. Kawaii refers to everything cute within Japanese subculture. This is not necessarily a key feature of Superflat but often is in the work of artists associated with this movement. These Kawaii elements are seen as manifestations of the feminine essence of Japan’s conservative mentality.

Murakami was the first to take kawaii characters, such as the little KaiKai and Kiki, and begin experimenting with different motifs. Yoshitomo Nara then followed suit, depicting children and animals. This was then also seen in Chinatsu Ban’s work as well.

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Mr., 'Sweeet!', 2013

An Anglicism that levels Japanese culture

The name Superflat, an Anglicism, also has a meaning. In Japan, the worlds of advertising, television, fashion, and music are inundated with foreign terms and words, mostly English, which are often adopted into the Japanese language just for their sound.

In addition, Superflat aims to level highbrow and lowbrow culture; it is created and reproduced in different formats so that everyone can access art and even buy pieces.

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Chinatsu Ban, 'V W X Yellow Elephant Underwear / H I J Kiddy Elephant,’ 2005.

Warhol and methamphetamines served as inspiration for Murakami’s art factory

In 1989, Takashi Murakami founded the Hiropon Factory in Tokyo. This creative studio referenced both Andy Warhol's famous "The Factory" and Hiropon, the name given to methamphetamines during World War II.

This is where Murakami's postmodern art movement took shape: inside this factory, a small group of people helped him create sculptures and paintings. However, as the Japanese artist's popularity grew, the size of the projects and the level of production became unsustainable. In 2001, the factory was converted into a professional organization producing and managing his art. That same year, the company was officially named Kaikai Kiki Co.

In post-war Japan, there wasn't a reliable art market. This was both an obstacle for Murakami’s project and the very reason he had launched it. The art scene of the time had appropriated Western trends and was superficial and hierarchical, unable to provide an artist with long-term support. Murakami wanted to transform this. First, he stopped participating in the Japanese art market altogether and instead began investing in promoting his work abroad.

Having achieved international success and gained worldwide recognition, he returned to Japan to attempt to build new foundations. Japanese critics said his work wasn’t art, so he set out marketing it through media platforms that weren’t art-focused. He launched a series of exhibitions and a fair–GEISAI, Superflat, Coloriage, and Little Boy–to present Japanese pop culture to an international audience. They were a success.

Kaikai Kiki works to nurture and raise generations of artists, pushing them to create the best possible work and providing them with the best opportunities and tools to excel in today's chaotic art world.

Today, it has grown into an internationally recognized large-scale art corporation, employing over 100 people in its offices and studios in Hiroo in Tokyo, and in Long Island in New York, as well as the animation studio in Daikanyama.

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Takashi Murakami, 'New day: Kaikai and Kiki, Faces All-Over', 2011.

The two generations of Superflat

Many split the artists associated with Superflat into two very distinct generations. The first generation is made up of the movement's co-founders, who were with Murakami at the beginning and are critics of superficiality:

Chiho Aoshima, who uses the Bézier curve to build worlds full of ghosts, zombies, and teenagers.
Aya Takano, who takes the cultural richness of post-war Japan and mixes it with the aesthetics of 14th-century Italian religious painting and MTV graphics.
Mr., a protégé of Murakami who explores the "Lolita" complex and the Japanese comic book industry.
Tomoko Nagao, who mixes kawaii style with an exaggerated classic Renaissance style to criticize the economic mechanisms of power in the reproduction of images.
Madsaki, a creator working in various styles, his work portrays society and day-to-day life from a reconstructed perspective.
Chinatsu Ban, whose work depicts elephants and underwear, which are his lucky charms.

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Tomoko Nagao, 'La Liberté guidant le peuple', 2015.

The second generation is a new generation of young artists capturing the inner feelings and thoughts of those living in a consumerist society. The five leading names in this new group are:

Rei Sato, a recent art graduate, draws on manga, impressionism, and abstract painting to create highly expressive pieces full of optimism.
Akane Koide, who began her career at the age of 15, captures the lives of middle-school and high-school students and their inner self, their relationships, and smartphones.
Minoura Kentaro mixes impressionist and abstract techniques to paint adorable children and spots.
Hiroto Ohkubo, a designer who mixes the concepts of "tenderness" and "poison" to design toys.
ob, a young artist who explores the female psyche depicting girls with big eyes and incorporating elements from video games and social media.

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ob, 'Do you come next year ?', 2014.

Other artists who also form part of this generation are JNTHED, an artist who went from being a graphic designer for a game company to painting pictures featuring robots and architecture; TENGAone, who lived her childhood near a US military base in Japan and produces work that is strongly influenced by American urban art and graphic design; Emi Kuraya, who, still a student, seeks to convey the thoughts of a teenage girl in young women; and Stickymonger, an artist who Murakami adopted into the movement (as she is Korean raised in New York), whose work depicts big-eyed women, the exploration and interplay of darkness and light, as well as the tension between innocence and fear, femininity and anxiety.

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Stickymonger, 'Doppelganger', 2018.

"I find living with art to be both intensely personal and to facilitate communication with others to a level of depth unattainable by any other means. That flexibility makes me happy. I believe in the power of art to break down freedom-constricting boundaries, repression, and prejudice. Art is a journey where the path is long, and the end is something that’s hard to see. But I am happy to have others join me, standing together and looking forward down the road." - Takashi Murakami.

Watch this conversation between Takashi Murakami and the Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in which they discuss the exhibition 'THE OCTOPUS EATS ITS OWN LEG,’ held in mid-2018.

Takashi Murakami.

English version by @eloiseedgington.

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