How a pop art phenomenon permeates all strata of Japanese society.
“Flowers” by Takashi Murakami is overpowering to say the least. Vivid colors cram shoulder-to-shoulder while each flower clambers for the audience’s adoring attention. The smileys aren’t as inviting as they are downright upsetting: their identical, copy-and-pasted look, their glaring absence of individuality.
“Flowers” is in fact not a single artwork, but rather a motif. Murakami’s flowers appear across multiple reproductions and mediums, including in paintings that are auctioned off for thousands of dollars, luxury fashion brands, streetwear, cushions, stickers, and keychains. Referred to as the Warhol of Japan, the 60-year-old artist’s defining and novel characteristic is in his tongue-in-cheek disregard for artistic realms: those same realms that so often confine an artist to specific mediums or to specific audience tiers. “Murakami likes to flaunt that he can make a million-dollar sculpture and then take the same subject and crank out a bunch of tchotchkes,” says Michael Darling, Assistant Curator at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
While an internationally-recognized artist, Murakami holds special relevance to the Japanese consumer market, pointing a vague finger at the underlying Japanese impulse to achieve emotional fulfillment through ineffective and escapist means. He is an artist who warrants reflection, through which we will then be able to reflect on ourselves and what our obsessive consumption habits point at.
As with his “Flowers,” Murakami draws inspiration for his artworks from two main sources: the Japanese generational trauma after its defeat in WWII and traditional Japanese painting. One core characteristic of traditional Japanese art, or Nihonga, is its appreciation for natural scenery. Its core ideal of setsugetsuka directly translates to “snow, moon, flowers.”
While drawing the flower motif from setsugetsuka, Murakami has over time grown disillusioned with these traditional naturalistic symbols, finding them irrelevant to modern Japanese life. He found the massively popular Japanese anime and manga industry to be more directly influential to the country’s conscience. In these media, he noticed the Japanese obsession with the hyperreal: on one side of the spectrum are “kawaii” characters, with its ideals of infantilization and submissiveness, and on the other extreme, graphic narratives the likes of Godzilla and kaiju (a giant monster motif found in Japanese science fiction) infiltrate the Japanese consciousness with violence and victimhood.
Murakami was the birth father of “superflat,” a name which gave to his flat, two-dimensional artistic style. Superflat draws dual inspiration from flat aesthetics of Japanese classical art and the modern phenomena of 2D graphics, including anime and manga — making superflat both a symbol of national continuity and a global representation of the digital age. With “Flowers,” Murakami intends to use superflat aesthetics to get to the heart of a “collective trauma,” an imprint left on the Japanese by the violence of the mid-20th-century.
On one hand, the flowers are all flat, in bright complementary colors, with bold outlines and two-dimensional smiles, exuding an almost-too-bright cheerfulness. But the overlapping, all-consuming blockage of such flowers only serves to overpower the “repressed unconscious of creator, consumer, and society alike.” Murakami understands this “repressed unconscious” to be the trauma of the Japanese defeat in WWII, which culminated in the disastrous atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the succeeding constitutional takeover by the United States. Because of this recent history being left “largely unexamined,” Murakami believes it to be the root of the dissonance which splits the national consciousness in two opposing directions, manifesting in the submission of kawaii culture and the nihilistic aggression in anime.
With this in mind, Murakami’s Flowers begin to appear more ominous and darker in tone. While Murakami admits his flowers to be “symbols that allow you to relive the images you have already experienced ,” the evocation of natural imagery seems an unreasonable task given the 2D hyperreality of his chosen superflat aesthetic. Instead of reminding one of nature, the flowers are more closely reminiscent of mass-production in industrialized Japan. In fact, the very process through which Murakami’s artworks are created is in a factory-like fashion, conducted in a studio that is aptly named the Hiropon Factory. Here, he directs twenty-five employees to reuse and archive recurring motifs, which include his smiling flowers, within a digital library of sorts. The aim is in pragmatics and efficiency, to recycle his motifs in as many works as possible with minimal manpower, and this results in the recurrence of the same smiling flower on, say, a Louis Vuitton wallet and a badge of Doraemon (a popular Japanese children’s manga).
By disseminating “flowers” and other motifs to a diverse and unbounded audience, then, Murakami lets go of control over their reception. Curiously, this dissemination is done entirely willfully on his part. In his infiltration of any and all industries, which start from colorful plushies made for children and end in collabs with celebrities the likes of Billie Eilish and luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, not only is Murakami powerless, but he is the willing killer of himself. His philosophy is to produce whatever is demanded and sell whatever can be marketed.
But, one might chance a guess, is this the artwork? Is Murakami’s process of dissemination, entirely reliant on market demands and reckless in its profit-maximization model, the art in his artwork? “For the evaluation of a piece of art, superficial qualities or themes are not that important,” he says in one interview. “What truly matters is whether or not the work is proposing a whole new cognitive field within art history.” This cognitive field refers to his introduction of superflat, an aesthetic that then spread as a global pop art movement.
But the cognitive exercise reaches deeper into the very definition of art. For centuries, “art” had had no place in the popular masses, or at least, the art that was produced for and within high-brow tradition was strictly separate from that which was practiced in pop culture. But Murakami leads the movement toward the complete and violent dissolution of this boundary. One curious characteristic of superflat is its bold, unnatural outlines, the likes of which one would see in a coloring book. Outlines and borders do not exist in nature; trees do not look like trees because they are bordered by a black line, but because of our perception of shades, color, and light, and what we expect a tree to look like. By exaggerating such outlines, Murakami brings perception to the fore: that what we see is not what is really there, but ultimately what is perceived. And, in turn, what is perceived is determined by social value; through branding, reputation, popularity… through others.
Yet, it’s difficult to say how much of Murakami’s work, or pop art in general, warrants such dissection. If there is political undertone to his artwork, it’s one that pushes itself into the background with its own vivid opacity. The artificiality of the smiling flowers reflects the look that we ourselves, willingly, put on our faces; the kind of smiles that are our distractions, not our authentic expressions. Where, really, is the room for the authentic kind, in our post-industrialist world where everything is determined by market value—even ourselves? Murakami’s plushies and cushions spread themselves into our bedrooms, like pollen suffusing into our most intimate spaces.