Little Boy (published by Japan Society / Yale University Press, 2005) is the official catalogue for the exhibition Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (Japan Society, New York, 2005) as well as a concept book on Japanese post-war culture edited by Takashi Murakami. Its front cover features Shinji Ikari of Neon Genesis Evangelion while Doraemon’s smile stretches across its back cover.
What lies beneath Takashi Murakami’s creation is Japanese art, including the works by so-called “eccentric” painters of the Edo period, namely Ito Jakuchu and Soga Shohaku, works by Rinpa artists like Tawaraya Sotatsu and Ogata Korin, along with ukiyo-e and the otaku culture of manga and animation that notably developed in post-war Japan. In the aspirational report on Murakami by Canadian sociologist Sarah Thornton in 2007-2009, the relationship between Takashi Murakami and otaku culture is described as follows: “Murakami’s work bears witness to his many years as an otaku science- fiction geek and obsessive manga fan. ... As Murakami explained, ‘We define subculture as a cool culture from abroad, but otaku is an uncool indigenous culture. My mentality came from those animation geeks.’”
In creating works of contemporary art based on the Edo period paintings and manga/anime culture, Murakami established the concept and art movement, which he coined “Super at”. “Flat” derives from the two-dimensionality of Edo period paintings as well as manga/anime. The concept of “ at” can be further expanded and used in a broader sense, suggesting how the categorization of subculture and high culture (or popular culture) is essentially meaningless in the sense that there should be an equality in expression, in that the expressions in fine arts or advertisement should be of equal value.
The first issue of Doraemon fans’ magazine Motto! Doraemon [More! Doraemon] (published by Shogakukan, 2005) includes an interview of Murakami, who had adopted Doraemon as an element in the Little Boy exhibition. In the interview, Murakami acknowledges that Doraemon is a story that seamlessly blends reality with dreams. The exhibition showcases original drawings with hand-written notes by Fujiko F. Fujio’s assistants, along with the anime and plush toys that derived from the manga. Murakami goes on to mention that, despite the notion in Japan of manga and anime being of lesser value than works of art, on the contrary, this is the manner in which art functions.
Murakami’s coherent philosophy is evident in his comment from 2002, as he released the painting of Doraemon characters and his own characters “Kaikai” and “Kiki” flying over a field of flowers with “hopters”, created on request for THE Doraemon Exhibition -Irai : anata no Doraemon wo tsukutte kudasai (Fujiko F. Fujio) [Request: Please make your own Doraemon (Fujiko F. Fujio)]. “When I painted this, I concentrated on remembering my childhood, so that I could meet my honest self. This work is set in the early summer at the beginning of 1970s. I was able to dive straight into the time when I played with my brother in the empty lands of an industrial area.”
THE Doraemon Exhibition TOKYO 2017 that opened two years ago and has been touring in Japan includes Murakami’s monumental work as the exhibition’s main visual, which features the characters from Doraemon as well as others created by Fujiko F. Fujio, immersed in Murakami’s signature flower motif. According to Murakami, this is based on the abstract expressionism that bloomed in the United States shortly after WWII; an enormous canvas, without a center (vanishing point) and an expression unhinged to a specific theme. In an interview, Murakami explained “the highlight of this work is how my ‘flowers’, with its grammar of contemporary art, can be adjacent to the grammar of manga from Doraemon.”
Abstract expressionism is not the sole essence woven into this painting. The characters appearing countless times with various expressions is “iji douzu hou”, and the distorted clocks surrounding the time machine are reminiscent of Dali’s surrealistic painting. The naked “Shizuka-chan” exists to grasp the grand theme of nude expressions in the history of painting. There may very well be further art-historical devices planted in this painting and I encourage you to find them.
In the recent years, this masterpiece has harvested the opportunity to produce collaborative products with Uniqlo, making the T-shirts and original plush toys a hit around the world. It now leads us to this exhibition at Perrotin Tokyo.