We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don't completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.” - Takashi Murakami

Perhaps, a glimpse into the unknown future is also possible by tiptoeing nostalgically into the past, rekindling the philosophy that our ancestors breathed in quest for the meaning of life. When Takashi Murakami, one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artists, shared dialogues with art historian and Miho Museum Director Tsuji Nobuo on the recreation of the Five Hundred Arhats, painted by Edo master Kano Kazunobu from 1854-1863, their encounter resulted to a compelling source of inspiration for Murakami’s The 500 Arhats, that is displayed in public for the first time in Japan, at Mori Art Museum’s current exhibition, Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats running until March 6, 2016.

There are many words to describe Takashi Murakami: wild, dynamic, eccentric, bold, thought provoking, surreal, perhaps, even rebellious. The modern man of color, animation, psychedelia, and transcendental futurism, Murakami and his vigorous attempt to converge flatness and the three-dimensional into one spectrum, to reincarnate spiritual deities into colorful animated caricatures, and to inject political humor into the irony of religion are all visible manifestations of the avant-garde artist’s giant leap into the universe of art, merchandise and commerce, all rolled into one.

After the devastation brought by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, Murakami’s approach to art suddenly plunged into a turning point. He felt that by some catalytic force, Japan had reawakened to question the evils of nature, the “impotence” of the government, and the “uncertainty and hesitation” for the future. Murakami called it a “superflat” portrait of post-war Japan. For him, The 500 Arhats represents the “moment when religion emerges,” the alternative ideology that could “protect Japan from catastrophe, disease, and nature.”

So, what are these “arhats?” An arhat (“Pali: arahant” in Sanskrit) in Theravada Buddhism refers to "one who is worthy," or a "perfected person" who has attained spiritual enlightenment. The original Five Hundred Arhats, painted by Kano Kazunobu (1816-1863) consisted of 100 scrolls completed in ten years, and depicted arhats in scenes of teaching the word of Buddha and performing acts of salvation. Murakami’s The 500 Arhats, however, is 100 metres long, one of the largest paintings ever completed in world art history that required the assistance of about 200 art students from various Japanese art colleges. The theme of the enormous painting is split into four sections, illustrating the Chinese guardians of each celestial direction: “Blue Dragon”-east; “White Tiger”-west; “Vermilion Bird”-south; and “Black Tortoise”-north. Every single deity reveals its own auspicious character—a skilled debater, a Dharma preacher, a master of wisdom and compassion, an arhat that can stretch and twist his eyebrows, and others. Flatly posing against a bright, luminous background, the monks are mutant-like, yet resembling Pocket Monster animated figures, almost clandestinely camouflaging a sensation of fear and mystery with comical jest.

Other prominent works in the exhibition are Murakami’s Ensō series, “circle” in Zen Buddhism, which also signifies enlightenment and strength. Slightly somber in dark shades of black and deep violet, a palette of mixed colors scatters over acrylic, gold, and platinum leaf on canvas, as though lifting the huge circle of hope from chaos, confusion, and even death.

The playful side of Murakami’s art frolics around manga-like characters, such as the popular Mr. DOB. A childlike parody of an alter ego self-portrait, the image is a cat-like robot with huge ears and rounded face, borne from a “gutsy frog” manga and video game animation, whose name apparently means nothing, and intentionally morphs the artist’s message of “nihilism and cynicism.”

Holding a Ph.D. degree in Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) from Tokyo University of the Arts, then exploring the realms of contemporary art, Takashi Murakami, who was raised by parents from Kyushu, south Japan and had molded his passionate curiosity for anime, has always searched for that bravery in art, where “pretty” pictures do not merely flatter coloration, charm or perfection of line and realism, but rather transmit a message of despair, consolation, and urgency for salvation in our times of religious and political turmoil. From this premise, Murakami’s works have always been regarded as provocative, extracting political and historical contexts out of the ordinary. Focusing on the past and present, the East and West, and the synthesis of tradition and modernity, has positioned Murakami at the forefront of unconditional freedom of art expression.

In Murakami’s own words, “We must become aware of our faults, learn temperance, and know our place within society. Despite this, the Japanese art scene is composed of lenience, irresponsibility, and unstudied ignorance; it’s a hotbed of people who remain in a state of idiocy. If we are idiots, then we must accept that and decide how we will deal with it…My goal is to edify the world of Japanese art universities and the art scene, and send, on my own, artists of quality into the world.”

Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan