Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo
A term coined and defined by Murakami Takashi, “superflat” refers to a tendency toward planarity in Japanese art, as well as superficiality and a lack of depth in postwar Japanese society and culture more generally—sublimated trauma and the blurring of boundaries (Murakami 2000a, 2005a, 2005b). Superflat also refers to an art movement centered on Murakami that developed in Japan beginning in the mid-1990s. The term gained its currency through Murakami’s provocative exhibitions and publications and responses to them.
Born in Tokyo in 1962, Murakami is not only an established artist, theorist, and writer, but also a curator, collector, and entrepreneur dedicated to cultivating young artists and marketing and managing himself and his work as a brand. It is through Murakami’s activities and associations that the concept of superflat came to be widely discussed and debated. In 1996, Murakami completed his studies of nihonga, a form of Japanese painting, at Tokyo University of the Arts. The first graduate to earn a PhD, Murakami’s thesis, “The Meaning of the Nonsense of the Meaning” (Imi no muimi no imi), hints at what was to come when he later departed from the established genre of nihonga and developed superflat.
This development occurred in a series of exhibitions in the early 2000s. In 2000, Murakami curated an exhibition titled Superflat at Parco Gallery in Tokyo and Nagoya. In 2001, an extended version of the exhibition, with curator Michael Darling, traveled across the United States, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and finally the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Featuring nineteen artists from Japan—including Aoshima Chiho, Hiromix, Mr., and Nara Yoshitomo—the traveling show presented works from multiple media, including painting, photography, video, computer animation, fashion, and sculpture. Quoting Japanese contemporary cultures, such as anime and manga, and brought together by Murakami, the works suggested a shared aesthetic of planarity and exuberant decorativeness.
Superflat was followed by Coloriage at the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 2002 and Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture at the Japan Society of New York in 2005. These three exhibitions have since been called the Superflat Trilogy (Murakami 2005b), and they allowed Murakami to elaborate his concept in increasing detail and broadening scope. The spectacle and buzz—culminating in Little Boy, which was awarded the Best Thematic Museum Show by the American branch of the International Association of Art Critics in 2005—brought international attention to Murakami’s interpretation of postwar Japanese art, society, and culture.
For Murakami, superflat is not only a theory of visual expression, but also a critical theory of contemporary Japanese society and culture and an artistic practice of flattening distinctions between old and new, high and low, and Japanese and non-Japanese. Superflat challenges the boundaries of art in at least three ways: First, a lack of depth and perspective connects traditional screens and woodblock prints to contemporary art; second, the contemporary art in question is both the work of Murakami and his peers, as well as manga and anime creators, brought together by a shared culture of surfaces and superficiality in postwar Japan; and third, distinctions between art and popular culture blur, which allows for connections with consumer groups and aesthetics such as “otaku” and “cute” (Ngai 2005). Manga, anime, and cute objects and characters not only influence Murakami’s work but are also exhibited beside it in the same spaces for the appreciation and evaluation of “art.”
In his superflat concept, Murakami turns explicitly to Japan and its more distant past, but in his superflat practice, he turns to the United States and its more recent past. On the one hand, Murakami links superflat with indigenous traditions such as the planarity in nineteenth-century woodblock prints, as well as group production methods adopted by the Kanō School, the largest school of Japanese painting between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Kōetsu Art Village in Kyoto in the seventeenth century (Murakami 2006, 90). On the other hand, he also endeavors to situate Japanese art in the lineage of Western art history (ibid., 89). Murakami’s practice is similar to that of Andy Warhol (1928–87), an American artist and leading figure of the Pop Art movement. While Warhol drew on advertisements and comic books, Murakami finds inspiration in manga, anime, and cute objects and characters. Both Warhol and Murakami are associated with organizing the group production of art, which blurs with popular culture and commerce.
An outstanding example of Murakami’s superflat is My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), a larger-than-life (288 x 117 x 90 cm) figurine made of fiberglass and acrylic. The cowboy has an emaciated body, white skin, spiky blonde hair, and shiny blue eyes; he stands naked, proudly erect penis in hand, masturbating, and a continuous stream of semen flies upward past his face and into the air to form a lasso. As Dong-Yeon Koh suggests, the cowboy embodies ambiguities (2010, 403). It integrates manga/anime aesthetics associated with otaku in Japan but has a name inspired by a Warhol film titled Lonesome Cowboys (1968). While Warhol’s film tries to challenge the strong, masculine, and patriotic image of American cowboys, Murakami’s cowboy expresses contrasts of impotency and virility, masculinity and cuteness, and Japanese and Western. Suggesting what lurks behind the apparent superficiality of the superflat manga/anime image in Japan, My Lonesome Cowboy captured the imagination of art critics and collectors alike. Indeed, in 2008, Sotheby’s in New York sold the cowboy to Pinault for $13.5 million, which makes it one the most expensive pieces of artwork in history (Rushe 2008).
A more recent example of superflat is an exhibition of Murakami’s own art collection at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2016. Encompassing traditional and contemporary Asian and Western works, as well as folk crafts and pieces by established artists, all without an emphasis on central pieces or preferred readings, Takashi Murakami’s Superflat Collection: From Shōhaku and Rosanjin to Anselm Kiefer again illuminates Murakami’s career-long project to flatten hierarchies and blur boundaries.
While there are many similarities between Murakami and Warhol, there are also significant differences between their processes of producing art. Put simply, Murakami tends toward stronger personal leadership and commercial interest. Warhol’s studio in New York, the legendary “Factory,” was a workplace where “Warhol superstars,” almost anonymous and unknown at the beginning, produced silkscreens and lithographs under Warhol’s direction, appeared in his films, and helped him generate publicity. Mimicking Warhol’s system, Murakami established the Hiropon Factory in 1996, which evolved into KaiKai Kiki in 2001, a company dealing extensively with the design and marketing of a range of merchandise with Murakami’s signature images emblazoned on them. In 2005, KaiKai Kiki employed over 100 people in its offices and studios in Tokyo and New York. In 2016, Murakami opened a new office, Office Zingaro Yokochō, along with galleries and café facilities, in the aging and increasingly popular Nakano Broadway mall in western Tokyo.
While Warhol’s Factory functioned more like a social gathering and networking site, Murakami’s studios are filled with employees, who produce group art by following explicit and detailed instructions. As Koh notes, the organization is strongly hierarchical (2010, 400–401), with an even militaristic discipline, which is ironic given that Murakami’s superflat is about flattening hierarchies and blurring boundaries. The results of this production process can be observed in Murakami’s The 500 Arhats (2012), a three-meter-tall and 100-meter-long painting displayed at the exhibition Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats at the Mori Art Museum. This huge work was realized by 200 people who were recruited by a system called “scouting caravans.” The staff, mainly university art students from Japan, worked in teams with shifting rotations around the clock. The recorded production process, displayed with the work, shows the strong leadership of Murakami, who gave his assistants “manuals” (shijisho) to be followed exactly. It seems that Murakami works to flatten hierarchies in and around art but depends on them to organize labor and produce art that makes him rich and famous as the man at the top. In this way, Murakami’s reimagining of Warhol’s Factory comes to be fitting of the name.
A tendency toward commercial interest is clear in KaiKai Kiki, which Murakami himself defines as “a company that can generate merchandising profits just like Disney or Lucas’ Star Wars series” (Cruz 1999, 16). KaiKai Kiki has done just that, for example turning Murakami’s smiling, cute, colorful flowers into everything from plush toys to plates to posters. At another level, Murakami has long been known for high-profile collaborations with corporate brands, for example providing designs for Louis Vuitton between 2003 and 2015. Commercial interest also impacts Murakami’s artwork directly. He states that size is important for artwork to sell, especially in the United States (Ibid., 181). Large works sell quickly, which might explain why Murakami’s works can be monumental and environmental, for example the Reversed Double Helix exhibition with giant balloons and sculptures at Rockefeller Plaza in New York in 2003 (Murakami 2010, 181).
While he may seem to be driven by naked profit motive, this is only fitting of Murakami’s superflat practice. To merge art with commerce and challenge the boundaries of art has long been a component of superflat. Further, his participation in the environment of consumerism and media is an intervention in ways recognizable from his writing on superflat, which is a critical theory about contemporary Japanese society and culture and, when distinctions are flattened, about capitalism itself.
Since the early 2000s, Murakami has had a major impact on art and academia in Japan and beyond. From 2002 to the present, he has organized GEISAI, a biannual art fair, which reveals his interest in curating and creating an environment for the emergence of new art and artists in Japan (Murakami 2006, 178). Mainly held in Tokyo and mimicking domestic manga and anime events such as the Comic Market, GEISAI features emerging artists and invites major critics, curators, and celebrities as award judges, which has made Murakami a central player in starting careers and collaborations for a generation of Japanese artists.
During his career in general, and especially with superflat, Murakami has been extremely aware of the Western gaze and has been effective at courting audiences and selling them concepts attached to the works. The international success of superflat is a testament to his business acumen. The invoking of Japan and manga/anime aesthetics at the time of “Cool Japan” has also reinforced particular structures of (inter)national interest. As Thomas Lamarre notes, Murakami seems to construct “Japan” with a Western audience in mind, which has led to international recognition (2004, 179–80). By Lamarre’s estimation, rather than flattening hierarchies and blurring boundaries between Asia and the West, difference returns as a way for Murakami to market to his assumed audience and promote his art as commodity. That said, in recent years Murakami has refused association with the government and its public diplomacy efforts to promote “Cool Japan” (Chayka 2012).
Going beyond the boundaries of the art world, Murakami’s superflat has generated wide debate among academics. These discussions often weave together art criticism and cultural and media studies, mirroring Murakami’s own influential writings. The planarity of superflat art has been connected to the “flatbed picture plane,” a concept put forward by Leo Steinberg (1920–2011) in the 1970s (Sale and Betti 2007, 179). Interested in perspective, Steinberg primarily examines artwork from the 1960s, especially those of American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008). In these works, Steinberg finds the “flatbed” as a characteristic picture plane, or “a pictorial surface whose angulation with respect to the human posture is the precondition of its changed content” (1972, 82). A major difference between Steinberg’s flatbed and Murakami’s superflat is that the former focuses on two-dimensional artworks while the latter moves across multiple forms of media and has developed into a movement.
Art criticism and cultural and media studies approaches to superflat have attempted to contextualize the emphasis on surface in Japan. Michael Darling holds that Murakami’s pictorial flatness serves as a formalistic link with the traditional (2001, 78). Marc Steinberg further argues that Murakami draws on elements of premodern Japan to create a composite that is marketable and serves the contemporary cultural logic of consumption (2004, 466–68). Critics and academics often connect superflat with otaku, or manga/anime fans defined as a “subculture” in the Japanese sense of the term (McKnight 2010, 125–28), while others focus on relations—political, economic, and cultural—between Japan and the United States after the Second World War. Art critic Sawaragi Noi argues that otaku, who are discriminated against in Japan, celebrate manga and anime, which epitomizes both a distinctively Japanese aesthetic and the dependent nature of Japanese arts and culture on those of the United States (1998, 52).
In addition to the example of My Lonesome Cowboy already discussed, this dynamic can be further explored by considering Murakami’s Mr. Dob character. Created in 1993, early in Murakami’s career, Mr. Dob went on to become a recurring and widely merchandized character. With big eyes, mouse ears, a button nose, and wide grin, Mr. Dob visually resembles Walt Disney’s iconic Mickey Mouse, who is also a recurring and widely merchandized character. On the other hand, his name expresses a question—“Why?” (doshite)—in Japanese, which has been mangled into nonsense (Koh 2010, 398; Azuma 2001, 91–95). Further, there is a darkness and danger to Mr. Dob, who mutates grotesquely across Murakami’s works and bares his sharp teeth menacingly (Ngai 2005, 823–25). In his own writings, Murakami explains this hidden and festering violence behind the superficial cute surface as an expression of sublimated trauma coming from defeat in the Second World War, occupation by the United States military, and the subsequent cultural colonization (2005a, 100–101).
While Murakami’s superflat has been widely praised, Azuma Hiroki and Dong-Yeon Koh also point out Murakami’s shortcomings. For his part, Azuma argues that Murakami experiments with the surface layer of manga and anime but fails to understand them—or understand the “database,” to use his term—as an otaku would, which is why manga/anime fans tend to hate his manga/anime-inspired work, such as My Lonesome Cowboy (2001, 91–95; see also Murakami 2000b). At another level, Koh criticizes Murakami’s emphasis of the mushroom and associations with the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, because this tends to place Japan in the position of victim in relation to the United States while drawing attention away from Japanese military aggression in China and Korea (2010, 406). Put simply, certain relations are hypervisible and seem to define “Japan” and “Japanese art,” while others are completely absent in ways that are politically problematic (see also Lamarre 2004).
All things considered, Murakami’s theory and practice, and heated debates about them in the art world and academia, have served to propagate the concept of superflat. Transforming and evolving in multiple and divergent discourses, superflat now appears in unlikely places, such as architecture, where critics use it describe a tendency toward flatness in the works of contemporary Japanese architects (Igarashi 2000, 96). Used this way, it is associated not with Murakami per se but rather with Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Hitoshi Abe, Atelier Bow-Wow, Jun Aoki, and Kengo Kuma. It tends to suggest something culturally specific to Japan, for example blurring the distinction between inside and outside and the minimal hierarchy of space. Through all of this, superflat has gained currency across national borders and disciplines.
Superflat can be understood as the artistic interpretation, by Murakami and others, of contemporary Japanese society and culture. It is also a practice of (re)locating Japan in a history and contemporary field of art that is dominated by the West. Rather than flattening hierarchies and blurring boundaries entirely, Murakami presents Japan to the world. He is deeply aware of the Western gaze, capitalist market, and cultural capital. Appeals to flatness, lack of perspective, and decorativeness are part of the package he presents. In addition to the flashy works themselves, linkages to indigenous traditions, working in large scale, and breaking rules also create spectacle. With his impressive business acumen, Murakami has succeeded in creating a recognizable image and a network of corporate brands, celebrity patrons, exhibition spaces, mass media, and emerging artists. Spectacle draws attention and spurs the movement of superflat across disciplinary and national borders. Even as Murakami’s star has risen, he offers audiences a compelling narrative about his work and practice, which makes often-obscure art into something more palatable and consumable.
Cruz, Amada, Takashi Murakami, Midori Matsui, and Dana Friis-Hansen. 1999. Takashi Murakami: The Meaning of the Nonsense of the Meaning. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Darling, Michael. 2001. “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness.” Art Journal 60, no. 3: 76–89.
Favell, Adrian. 2011. Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011. Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited.
Igarashi, Tarō. 2000. “Superflat Architecture and Japanese Subculture.” In Japan Towards Totalscape: Contemporary Japanese Architecture, Urban Planning and Landscape, edited by Moriko Kira and Mariko Terada, 96–101. Rotterdam: Nai Uitgevers Publishers.
Koh, Dong‐Yeon. 2010. “Murakami’s ‘Little Boy’ Syndrome: Victim or Aggressor in Contemporary Japanese and American Arts?” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 11, no. 3: 393–412.
McKnight, Anne. 2010. “Frenchness and Transformation in Japanese Subculture, 1972–2004.” In Mechademia 5: Fanthropologies, edited by Frenchy Lunning, 118–37. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Murakami, Takashi. 2005a. “Earth in My Window.” In Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, edited by Takashi Murakami, 98–149. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Murakami, Takashi. 2005b. “Superflat Trilogy: Greetings, You Are Alive.” In Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, edited by Murakami Takashi, 150–85. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.