Little Boy

Title: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures
Editor: Takashi Murakami
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 300

Little Boy is most definitely the contemporary Japanese art exhibition catalog to end all art exhibition catalogs. It quickly sold out when it was first released, and secondhand copies now sell for ridiculous amounts of money. The Japan Society of New York has finally released a softcover edition, which it sells in its headquarters in New York City. The new edition is just as gorgeous and well put together as the original hardcover version; so, if it’s at all possible for you to acquire one, go for it! Quickly! Do it now! Before you even start reading this review! Yes, it’s that good.

The first one hundred or so pages of this catalog feature full color plates of various artworks, photographs, and screen stills. Through these plates, pop artist extraordinaire Murakami Takashi attempts to demonstrate in images the thesis of his introductory essay “Earth in my Window.” Murakami’s main argument can be summarized in two points. First, the Pacific War, especially the two atomic bombs that ended it, left an indelible scar on the Japanese psyche. Second, the experience of having been defeated in war and thereafter occupied by America has turned multiple generations of Japanese people into perpetual children. The first point is illustrated by plates demonstrating recurring nuclear imagery in films and television serials such as Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and various tokusatsu (“special effects”) films released by Tōhō Studios, as well as in the artistic output of artists like Yanobe Kenji and Murakami himself. The second point is easily demonstrable by the overtly cartoonish and childlike work of artists such as Nara Yoshitomo, Ban Chinatsu, and Mr., as well as by the designs of popular and festishized kyara (“characters”) like Hello Kitty. Following these images and explanatory essay is a short manifesto penned by Murakami to support his superflat art movement, which is apparently based on the idea that contemporary Japan needs art that reflects its current cultural status of being awash in meaningless junk.

Next up is a transcription of a conversation between Okada Toshio and Morikawa Kaichirō (two self-proclaimed experts of “otakuology”) moderated by Murakami. Morikawa in particular states that otaku are characterized by an obsession with things that are dame (absolutely useless), whether it’s collecting antique model kits or falling in love with moe (young and innocent) characters. Okada seems to have a somewhat more optimistic view of otaku, who he thinks are simply resorting to childish things in order to escape a meaningless and unforgiving life. This conversation is superbly illustrated by images of the cultural paraphernalia the two men mention, and it also includes several dozen footnotes explaining their various obscure otaku references.

Following this conversation are two academic essays by Japanese scholars, Sawaragi Noi and Matsui Midori. Sawaragi discusses how the Pacific War has filtered through Japanese pop culture in movies like the Godzilla and Space Battleship Yamato series, and Matsui discusses the subculture of kawaii (“cute”) in postwar Japan, especially in terms of how it is connected to art depicting women and art by women artists like Takano Aya and Mizuno Junko. Following these two essays by Japanese authors are two essays by American authors, Alexandra Munroe and Tom Eccles. Munroe offers a history of otaku subculture from the perspective of a Western observer, and Eccles attempts to situate the superflat movement with the history of Western pop art. All of these essays (as well as everything else in the catalog) are presented in both English and Japanese, with a column of English text on the left and a column of Japanese text on the right. Finally, the “Further Readings” section at the end of the book is an invaluable six-page bibliography of related works in both English and Japanese.

In short, Little Boy is gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. The dual language presentation is unobtrusive for readers of one language but wonderful for readers of both. Murakami’s presentation of Japanese culture itself is both extremely interesting and highly controversial. This catalog is a work of art and an object of culture in and of itself. No matter what your field of interest is, I highly recommend picking up a copy before they’re all gone.

Drop Dead Cute

Title: Drop Dead Cute
Author: Ivan Vartanian
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Pages: 160

When I first picked up this book several years ago, I was quite disappointed. With a title like “Drop Dead Cute” and references to Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo in the blurb on the inside cover, I had expected the book to contain more of what I saw as “anime art” (or perhaps “manga art”). In fact, however, the deliciously pink cover image by Takano Aya is as close as this book gets to anime art. The rest of the book isn’t even cute. It’s disturbing, yes, and violent, yes, and all sorts of interesting and creative, but not cute.

Which leads me to wonder, upon closer examination, what exactly the title means by “cute.” To me, “cute” is something that elicits an emotional response along the lines of “Oh my gosh I want to love on it.” The pieces exhibited in Drop Dead Cute aren’t exactly that sort of cute (and, to that effect, I would wager that the emphasis in the title is actually on “drop dead”). The book is filled with animals, however, and plant life. Much of this flora and fauna is anthropomorphic. There are also plenty of young women (and almost no men) and a profusion of soft pastel colors.

Kudo Makiko opens the book with her oil paintings of young girls, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dreaming, who have found themselves in strange landscapes guided only by cats and dogs. Murata Yuko renders animals and landscapes in simple compositions consisting of wide, sweeping brushstrokes. Hosoya Yuiko is represented by pencil drawings of sullen young women that look like the work of a beginning art student, with finger smudges and blank backgrounds. Ban Chinatsu, famous for her collaboration with Murakami Takashi in the New York Japan Society’s “Little Boy” exhibition of 2005, paints huge acrylic canvases filled with baby elephants in pursuit of underpants. Murase Kyoko works in all sorts of media, from traditional oils to white out pen on yellow legal paper, but her naked drowning girls are equally unsettling no matter what her canvas. Tabaimo’s work is, as always, something straight out of a horror movie.

My two favorite artists in this collection are Aoshima Chiho and Takano Aya. Although Aoshima claims that she doesn’t read manga or watch anime, her works closely resemble the anime style, filled as they are with fantastic, wide-eyed girls sporting wild hair of various colors and very little clothing. In her work, these girls are bound, eaten, digested, rotting, free floating, and reborn in amazingly detailed, brightly colored graveyards and Edens. Since the majority of her work is digital, her photo manipulations, which juxtapose her cartoon-like demon girls against ordinary Japanese backdrops, blend seamlessly into the rest of her oeuvre. Takano, whose artwork was used for the cover of this book, does in fact draw manga, or at least sequential art resembling manga, and she is represented in this collection by a short, colorful, manga-esque piece titled “Subterraned,” which I think is by itself worth the price of the entire book. Her artist’s statement, which delves into themes of sci-fi and eroticism, is also quite interesting.

Each of the ten artists is given a three page introduction, with doodles at the top of the pages and text based on interviews at the bottom. Following each introduction are eleven pages showcasing the works of the artist, with one, or occasionally more, pieces per page. The titles of the pieces are given in English, but each artist has also handwritten the original title of the piece next to the English entry. The book begins with a twelve page, well-illustrated introductory essay by Ivan Vartanian and ends with short biographies of all the artists. Everything is full color, and the publication quality is just about as high as it can go.

The artists featured in this book are:

Kudo Makiko
Aoshima Chiho
Murata Yuko
Aoki Ryoko
Hosoya Yuiko
Takano Aya
Ban Chinatsu
Murase Kyoko
Kusama Yayoi
Tabaimo

Warriors of Art

Title: Warriors of Art
Author: Yamaguchi Yumi (山口裕美)
Translator: Arthur Tanaka
Publication Year: 2007 (America)
Pages: 175

Warriors of Art is, simply put, a beautiful, interesting, and exceptionally well-edited introduction to contemporary Japanese artists. The forty artists presented by the book represent a wide range of styles, media, and themes. A large percentage of the artists are internationally renowned and probably somewhat familiar to many Americans, who should be able to identify their styles if not necessarily their names. The book is illustrated with works instantly accessible to the casual reader, and the image quality could not be better. Every image has been reproduced in full color (where applicable) against a white background. At $35 (and deeply discounted on Amazon), Warriors of Art is also available at an affordable price.

The five page general introduction to the collection is promptly followed by a parade of artists appearing in alphabetical order. Each artist has been allotted four pages, the first of which contains a half-page, two column introduction. I have to say that, even though I generally don’t find much use for the text in art books, I genuinely enjoyed reading each of the artist introductions. These introductions put the work of the artist into perspective with biographical details and offer a few extremely apt interpretive comments, referring only to the pieces reproduced within the book. An average of five works follow each artist’s textual introduction, although the number tends of vary from artist to artist.

As for the actual content of the book, I found it extremely disturbing. Sometimes I was mesmerized by a piece, my reaction being something like “!!!!!!!!!.” Sometimes I found myself quickly turning the page because I found myself deeply upset by a particular work. As Yamaguchi says in her introduction to the book, “A glance at the work of the forty artists introduced in the book reveals recurring images of the cute, the grotesque, the erotic, the violent.” I think her description of “recurring images of” might more accurately read “a constant and overwhelming deluge of” images of cuteness and terror, eroticism and subtle (and not so subtle) aggression. In fact, one of the first plates in the book, an anime-style picture by Aida Makoto called The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, depicts a female character from the anime Ultraman crying as she is both disemboweled and sexually violated by a golden hydra of Godzilla fame. Things carry on in much the same vein from there.

Even though Warriors of Art is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart (or the underage), the images are colorful, eye-popping, and deeply engaging. Questions of national identity, sexual identity, and personal identity are tackled again and again by these artists, whose experiments with style, composition, and color yield shocking results. Even a brief look at the works in this book calls the duality of high art and popular culture into question. Certainly, even though the entirety of Warriors of Art can be read less than two hours, I found myself captivated with it for days, returning to it for fresh surprises and new insights.