The japanese wow zone of freedom


Walking through the 'Pop Life' exhibition in Tate Modern , you begin to feel cheerful, happy, notice a glimpse of smile on your face and suddenly wonder why. Being surrounded with a parade of popular culture and customer oriented goods portrayed on canvases, large pattern paintings, hip music in the background and animals displayed in tanks, your mind and fantasy cannot stop but wonder: What is the purpose of pop art? Is it art? Where is the line between high and low art drawn? Why does the public so largely accept it? What comes next? The last stop takes you to the room full of colourful comic flowers, vinyl sculptures and shiny tomato bottles covered in gemstones. This joyful playground is crowned with a music video with Kirsten Dunst directed by Takashi Murakami. You have just entered the ultimate Murakami world. You leave the exhibition with excitement and sparkles in your eyes. Perhaps, pop art, and especially Japanese pop art, brings the kid inside of you. The kid that is trouble-free, full of enthusiasm and dreams. And lastly, you take a while to think about what you have just seen. Was it art, or was it artist's promoting their public image? What are the identity politics of the contemporary pop artist?

Pop art brief encounters

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Pop art is referred to as a way of life, rather than the culturally perceived visual art movement, which originated in the mid 1950s in the UK and later on developed in the USA. It is considered a form of Modern Art. The attitude to mass production, materialism and consumerism are the keystones that stirred artists' imagination and became a major part of the movement itself, as the visual side of pop art is based on advertising, comic books, etc. Pop art is symbolized by the means of reproduction, representation of kitschy, popular elements, and depicting the irony brought about the elitist culture. Alien, bizarre and conflicting images are very common.

Pop art is a reaction to Abstract Expressionism with artist manifesting against the impersonal reality. Pop art brings the hard-edged truth wrapped in consumerism, mass culture artifacts, popular icons, representation of the glossy celebrities with a flair of irony and parody at the same time. Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray's later artworks are claimed to be progressing toward and leading to Pop Art.

British artists became infuenced as well by American artists such as Jasped Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Pop Art became very much the part of the image of fashionable swinging London, coincided with the youth and pop music phenomenon ofthe 1950's and 60's (e.g. The Beatles). A typical example would be Peter Blake, who designed album covers for Elvis Presley and the Beatles. He placed Brigitte Bardot in his pictures, as well as Andy Warhol placed Marilyn Monroe in the same way in USA. Pop Art is therefore a movement that shares interest in the urban, consumer, modern experience and world.

Andy Warhol is considered the most famous pop artist because of his attempt and success in moving the style of art into a lifestyle adopted by many of his followers. He depicted the true nature of mass production and was the first one to have embraced the idea of art as business.

Manga and its role in contemporary Japan and Pop art

Understanding the visual side of contemporary Japanese pop art and manga, as one of its components, needs to be linked with the historical development. As Japan did not allow any western influences through their borders, and had long approved only trading with Holland, the country had developed a unique style. The isolation made the society take a different reflection on art and understanding of art. In 1854 the USA forced Japan to open their borders for relations with other countries, which resulted in a revolution and the Meiji Restoration of 1867, bringing foreign trade, hence influences through globalisation to the country. This was the start of a new cultural and economic relationship from Japan with the rest of the world. Since then, Japan became influenced by the western world, even though such change was made by force.

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As long as the USA pressured Japan to open their borders, they literally opened themselves as well to the western influence. Therefore, could we say that there has been an influence of western culture in that of Japanese? Was there a mutual progress?The overall commercialism freed artists and let them establish independent art practices. Even though a seclusion policy was introduced, artists still produced western style illustrations and widely depicted foreign landscape. Such Western depictions influenced as well lacquer ware and ceramics. On the other hand, a full integration between Western painting and the one of Japanese did not occur until the efforts of the Youga and Nihonga painters. Then the circulation of graphic images was constantly informing artists about movements in other places. Such development brought about dilemmas that western artists had to face, such as national identity question, or the individual versus society.

On the other hand, despite the development, there was a lack of critical discourse in Japanese perception of western art. Therefore, we can see similarities to Japonisme in Europe adopting certain aspects of Japanese culture. In Japanese culture, it is believed that all traditional values would be lost in the urge for new information from the western world and the anticipation that Japan should be modernized. By its means, western art represented a whole cultural system that became a challenge for Japan. In a way, it as well represented a role model and a center of the world.

Manga, which literally means whimsical pictures, is referred to the method of drawing apicture according to the way the brush or drawing material glided across the page at random (hence the whimsical side of the term). However, when talking about manga in greater detail, we have to understand that the history of manga extends far beyond the actual birth of anime. In the past, people were being entertained by the pictorial art that was similar to today's manga, was not much more than comic strip. What happens to be very significant and important, is that manga holds a place in Japanese history of art in general.

One of the people that have greatly contributed to the spread of manga, in rather indirectway, is Joseph Pulitzer. He was the publishing pioneer who was responsible for allowing the first humorous comic strips to appear in publications. We can find a lot of similarities in the way these American cartoons are consisting of to Japanese manga. These include the sequential panels or single illustrations that tell a story or make comedic points. A typical example of a famous American cartoon figure is The Yellow Kid (by J. Pulitzer). Now, here we can see the interconnection between these two cultures. The Japanese picked up on the comic trend, and began drawing their own comic strips and caricatures in more western style. One of these was for example Ippei Okamoto, an artist. He became greatly influenced by works that featured Pulitzer's magazine. Moreover, as well as the western cartoons became influenced by the Japanese manga, one interesting aspect appeared. In both sides we can see a gradual progress. Early Japanese animation was mainly influenced by Disney, as well as early western comics strips were influenced by the early manga.

Interestingly, considering the example of manga comics being translated into different languages, there we could see how the idea of a stable Japanese uniqueness becomes supported. Japanese is usually written right-to-left in works of fiction, manga is drawn and published this way in Japan. Therefore when various titles were first translated to other languages, the artwork and layouts were reversed and flipped in a process known as "flopping", so that the book may be read from left-to-right. Formatting, which has now become commonplace in North America. Left-to-right formatting has gone from the rule to the exception.

It is interesting, that despite globalization, manga is still keeping its unique face, even when it comes to typography. The manga typography is not being changed to different purposes but remains in it's own style throughout its wide applications. In case of manga sculptures, preferably those of Takashi Murakami, we come across a great use of vinyl, that has become very popular in recent times also with other artists form the Western art world, such as Jeff Koons. Japanese pop art culture is a battle to promote the national identity and sustain it in its uniqueness.

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'It is this creative freedom, something that we cherish in the United States as a cultural touchstone, that is at least partly behind the most innovative characteristics of Japanese popular culture: the little white kitty famously composed of seventeen lines, four colors, and no mouth whose appeal transcends global boundaries; the fuzzy yellow Pikachu; the numerous manga and anime, some of which explore physical transformation, philosophical conundrums, and dense personal trauma with daring visuals and unexpected plot turns.You may be a staid Japanese businessman by day, but at night and on weekends, the culture lets you craft your own identity. A virtual after-hours self.'(Kelts, Roland 2006, p.23)

Nowadays, the general public, as the audience for Pop Art, finds itself in two worlds due to the access of several media, including the internet. Westerners do not value, nor perceive this change as much, as it is amplified in Japan. The media becomes a way of sustaining popular culture in which the audience portrays their inner selves accepting issues that are publicly unacceptable. 'But in Japan, there are two very specific words to define these selves: tatemae, or the presentation of your public self, and honne, how you really feel.The underlying truth.' (Kelts, Roland 2006, p.24) Perhaps, the contemporary portrayal of 'honne' in the everyday lives that is pursued through the contemporary Japanese Pop Art, is what makes the public excited about the outcomes. Moreover, it is the playfulness of the 'honne' that is giving out the freedom and demolishing the mass-production aspect that is engraved in the Pop Art movement.

Given the status of uniqueness with regards to the cultural development in Japan, plays its major role as well when talking about the Japanese Pop Art. Spotting the artworks, one can immediately recognize them as Japanese because of its commonly used styles. Anime and ukiyo-e ( Japanese woodblock prints picturing landscapes, historical events, the theatre, etc. ), as well as traditional Japanese art have become the sources of inspiration for Japanese artists. The above mentioned Takashi Murakami, is considered the best-known pop artist in contemporary Japan. His studio, consisting of a group of artist working under the idea of the superflat movement, portrays the pop- arty obsession of mass production, taking its inspiration mainly from anime. Its target audience is Japanese youth, hence the unique, playful and happy style. On the contrary, other artists commonly use hentai (sexually explicit or pornographic comics and animation) as a source of inspiration, creating surreal and disturbing art. Though its provocativeness, such art is widely accepted by the japanese, appealing to both older and young audience. In its wider sense, Japanese Pop Art is a representation of the post-war status of the differences between high and low art, as opposed to it being questioned by the western culture.

Takashi Murakami is a contemporary Japanese artist, who embraced Warhol's legendary statement 'good business is the best art' ( Tate 2009, p.13). He works across the media, from fine art to commercial and digital media, which brings him to the line between high and low art. He is well- known for his cooperation with Louis Vuitton, Kanye West and his alterations of works for mass media and pop culture.

Murakami graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Even though, his early studies involved traditional Japanese art, due to the popularity of manga and anime, his interests shaped towards the otaku culture ( population being obsessively interested in manga and anime). Murakami was excited about the modern Japanese life, hence the otaku fascination. His constant urge to prove the Japanese culture, and take it to the level of high, cross-culturally accepted art, demolishing the barriers of the system, brought about the concept of Superflat, which aims at increasing the market awareness of art being sustained in its market. ' The Superflat Manifesto did not make the righteous claim that Japanese can produce high art just like Westerners; instead [ Murakami ] aimed to recreate global art by changing the value system, proclaiming 'the time has come to take pride in our art which is a kind of subculture, ridiculed and deemed "monstrous" by those in the Western art world' ( Tate 2009, p.77).Takashi Murakami is accredited for this distinct style called the Superflat.

What is Superflat? Superflat is considered to be a postmodern art movement, influenced by anime and manga. 'The term is Murakami's own, his manifesto on the way various forms of graphic design, pop culture and fine arts are compressed - flattened - in Japan. The term also refers to the two-dimensionality of Japanese graphic art and animation, as well as to the shallow emptiness of its consumer culture. Murakami first used it to label an exhibition he organized for the PARCO department store museums in Tokyo and Nagoya.' (DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP, H. (2004) Superflat, [Online], Available: [12 Nov 2009]) In a way, Superflat is a self-advertised art movement, which became a very successful part in its self-defined niche market of Western general public. Because of its major appeal to Western audiences, and intention to be firstly promoted outside the Japanese borders, it is considered a brand communicating on a phenomenal scale.

As much, as Murakami intends to present the Western world with the true Japanese nature, the more he opens himself to it. The very notion of this could be seen on him, as a person. Despite him being a pop artist, unlike Warhol, his public image stays identity-driven. He keeps the humble Japanese look, not being tight down by him artwork. He presents himself as a respected Japanese citizen, with his glasses on and a traditional Japanese hairstyle.Through his public appearance, he stands to his beliefs in the origins of manga and justifies the style pursuit of many of his followers.

'Murakami's theories about the origins of manga and anime were more detailed, if not always academically sound: The dropping of the atomic bombs created a trauma in Japanese culture for which there was no precedent in world history. Publicly at least, and perhaps sensing no other option, the majority of Japanese wanted to forget their post-traumatic stresses and move forward quickly (very postmodern, very Japanese)'. ( Kelts, Roland 2006, p. 40-41) Based on this observation, Murakami claims, that only artist are able to maintain the true feeling,act in the 'honne', and therefore they are obliged to express the feeling. Hence, manga and Japanese anime was a reaction to the post-war traumatic era.

This brings up the contradiction of Murakami working on the music videos and album covers for artists, such as Kanye West, or cooperating on luxury goods design motifs for Louis Vuitton,which clearly move his "brand" image up the ladder of success and public appreciation. Despite such cooperation brings success to him and his KaiKai&kiki studio, it automatically lays a shadow of contradiction when his critical credibility is put to question. The dilemma appears when questioning his works as opposed to its close relation to the market. Can his work claim social and political apspect when placed together with the market? In this sense, Murakami moves toward the Warhol-style art versus business idea. Because of this Warhol aspect in his practices, it is being justified why his identity politics become disrupted and lost in the overall intention. However, this does not ruin or negatively influence the mainstream acceptance of his artwork. On the other hand, his Business Art strategies made the Japanese art more available in the Western culture, moving the Japanese true non-post-war depiction of feeling through art outside the borders, educating the public. 'On the surface, his modus operandi seems to come straight out of the Warholian playbook, with little variation from the original model: striving for mainstream celebrity; adopting corporate structures; catering to our collective appetite for sensationalism; transgressing avant-garde hierarchies that separate high from low, commodity from art'. ( Tate 2009, p. 78)

The courage of Andy Warhol to bring the first ever concept of the Business Art, created a turmoil among the art critics and challenged the values artist were supposed to project and embrace for centuries. Warhol pushed himself into the celebrity stage, lobbing for his own artistic persona as a brand. He soon became an active part of the pop culture, and most importantly of the high society. This status gave Warhol an avant-garde feel. He showed the society that artists do not have to obey the standards and stirred the market versus art dilemma. His public appearance, branding and cliché- breaking won a steady place among the mainstream, where he then embraced his career and targeted his artworks. Murakami began to play his card in the Warholian sensation, applying such practices to his business KaiKai&kiki Co Ltd. Studio. 'The model here is Warhol, of course, who talked and wrote a lot but only in words that issued from his branded persona, so that no one could be sure of their status:'Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.' As art draws nearer the standard commodity it would be foolish to expect critical comment on a product by its maker.' ( Stallabras, Julian 2004, p.100)

He has taken this instance of Americanism and implanted it in the Japanese grounds.He identified the major characteristics of the post-war society in Japan, and built his empire on the merge between fine art and popular merchandise. Interestingly, in Japanese language, there are no origins for the terminology of fine art until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, as well as the artists were first exposed to avant-garde art much later. To summarize his Warholian intake, Murakami cleverly works with the economic forces, joining imported and domestic goods and ideas to create a product, that will embed the cultural hallmark in its export. 'As cultural critic Dick Hebdige has noted: ' As for the current craze for Murakami in America, it seems probable...that Americans feel they understand Murakami without conducting research because they are reacting to a hyperstimulated and decontextualized Japan that looks a lot like their society.' ( Tate 2009, p. 79)

KaiKai&kiki 's success in its product line is the ultimate proof for such development. Its merchandise comprises of shokugan ( snack toy) figurines, t-shirts, posters, toys, personal accessories,etc. These market goods carry Murakami's signature carefully placed on them through the visual motif. Among the most famous ones, we could mention Mr. D.O.B. ( a Mickey Mouse-like character), smiling flowers, or the jellyfish eye that has clear aspects of manga in their portrayal. Such characters, and their thorough marketing could be seen as one of the first attempts to abolish the inferiority complex in Japanese culture developed due to the causes of war. On the other hand, Murakami does not produce only such merchandise products, he also engages in sculpting and painting. However, such artworks are not as available due to their value of six figure prices. Hence, the public popularity and availability of the merchandise products made his ideology and values to flip the American popular culture power by simply presenting the Western market the Japanese contextual forms in the western accepted format.

Murakami's passion and involvement in otaku through presenting the merchandise suited to his endeavours prepares the western grounds for its wide acceptance, hence creating the pop art madness for the mass-produced apparel, seen in the past by Warhol and his followers. On the other hand, examining the past American Pop Artists, who succeeded at bringing the low art and cultural brands and signs to the top, Murakami goes beyond the thematic and visual aspect of the matter. Through Murakami's work, we can see him expressing the otaku values and attitude, which therefore go slightly against the Business Art ideology. This results in him not being the ultimate ' 'sell-out' as would be said of an artist in the west; the white-cube art production, luxury fashion-brand consulting and KaiKai&kiki merchandising are all equally weighted in his radical cultural maelstrom.' ( Tate 2009, p. 80) Murakami uses the otaku figures well, in order to express and present a new cultural boom of the Japanese art. He does not go against the traditional mainstream, but takes it as it is and alters it to the image of the mass-consumer of contemporary art world.

Art historian Midori Matsui said on Murakami's behalf: ' Murakami's uniqueness lay in his dialectical thinking, which inspires him to turn negative conditions of postmodern Japanese society into new methods of creating and interpreting a uniquely Japanese art...Murakami utilized these negative conditions [ embodied by otaku culture] - childishness and flat social culture - as a vehicle to develop a unique aesthetic, a method of cultural interpretations and rules of artistic operation to bring a revolutionary change in the structure of Japanese art.' ( Tate 2009, p.80)

The cultural justification of Murakami's campaign through KaiKai&kiki gains the mass-market power and its commercial aspect of market by every single purchase of either the Superflat monogram bag for Louis Vuitton, or KaiKai&kiki plush toy. Regarding the cooperation with Louis Vuitton, it not only helps Murakami to gain the international recognition, but also functions as a vehicle to channel the otaku agenda. The recent example of this is his short movie for LV called the SUPERFLAT FIRST LOVE 2009, where he cleverly uses the dynamics of well-known brands to his intentions of promotion. Therefore, nevertheless there is an incredible amount of otaku culture shown in the short video, comprising of many Japanese element, that might be foreign to the western viewer, he successfully uses this as a platform for strengthening his status in his political identity with international recognition.

The relationship between American and Japanese popular culture is well explained by Henry Jenkins as in: 'Increasingly, American popular culture is responding to Asian influences, with the rise in violence in mass market entertainment a property of heightened competition betweenJapan, India, Hong Kong, and Hollywood for access to international markets. Action elements surface, not only in games but also in film, television, and comics, because such elements are more readily translated across linguistic and national boundaries. The need to appeal to a mass consumer, Seldes insisted, meant that popular artists could not give themselves over to morbid self-absorption. Creating works in media that were still taking shape, popular artists were not burdened with a heritage but constantly had to explore new directions and form new relationships with their publics. The lively arts look towards the future rather than toward the past.' (Jenkins, Henry 2006, p. 32-33)

Post-Warhol artists

'At the same time, contemporary art has moved into closer contact with selected elements of a mass culture that has become so pervasive that this turn is sometimes confused with a new engagement with the 'real' or 'real life'. Art stars have long been celebrities, but now the art scene as a whole is treated much like fashion or pop, and even its minor players appear in the organs devoted to tracking the intersecting orbits of the celestial bodies. In particular, art and fashion have increasingly been seen hand-in-hand, as the cult of youth that has enveloped culture as a whole has also swept through the art world. While this account will often take the period since 1989 as if it were a unitary whole so that we may more clearly examine the structure of the art world and its products, a number of important changes associated with globalization have transformed contemporary art. These are the linked issues of politicized art in the US, the economic cycle, and a transformation in the standard form of contemporary art display.' ( Stallabrass, Julian 2004, p. 25-26)

In 1986, American artist Jeff Koons, engages in creating a stainless steel sculpture of an inflatable rabbit. In 1990, Koons marries a pornstar and makes a series of sculptures and sexually explicit photograph paintings on enormous canvases celebrating not just his great physique, but his personal ambitions. This gains him one-off appraisal, as well as equal criticism and celebrity light again. Later on in 2007, he follows on this design to create a giant version of this sculpture this time helium filled for a public day parade in New York. The sculpture stirs the waters of art critics. His response to their criticism is to publish their photographs with their opinions in magazines.

1987- Andy Warhol dies.

In 1988, the YBA ( Young British Artists- Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, etc.) emerge with their careers with an exhibition called 'Freeze', in a warehouse in London Docklands.

In 1995, Tracey Emin creates 'Everyone I have slept with'. This art installation comprises of a tent with all the names she was in bed with since 1963. The reflection on this art work is her placing herself in the center stage telling stories from her life. Her later work consists of handbag designs for Vivienne Westwood and car decorations for Fiat. In 1999, she is short listed for Turner Price for her work My Bed. This nomination causes great debates.

In 2003, the boat linking Tate Britain to Tate Modern gets a unique motif of Damien Hirst's signature dots. In 2007, He sells his artwork ' For the love of God', which is a diamond skull for $50 million.

After Warhol's death, the celebrity 'brand' pop art status starts to decline. The art is moving into a different level, with the mass-consumption being even greatly encouraged through art appearing in fashion and other mainstream objects. Artists no longer can only promote themselves as celebrities; they have to touch cliché's to satisfy us, the viewers. 'Contemporary artists tend to handle the issue of consumer culture with fascination and nervousness, and there is good reason for both reactions. Fascination, because consumerism appears to become ever more cultural, as much concerned with selling or merely displaying images, sounds, and words as it is with material things. Nervousness, because the engines of this production are so vast and lavishly funded, their output so strident and omnipresent. If commodities tend towards being cultural, what space is left for art?' ( Stallabrass, Julian 2004, p.84)

High art vs. low art

High and low art forms are clearly symbolic boundaries. What differentiates a piece of art from being considered mainstream? It is the boundaries, that the general public creates by its acceptance or neglecting that define this. Again, as mention previously, this simple equation is driven by the supply and demand. Based on these variables, we create a belief that distinquishes between high and low art, which then links to the sociological view on these aspects. In its basic form, low art means easily accesible art, art that is available to lower social classes. On the other hand, following the basic idea of high art, these hold a higher status due to their higher monetary value, which equally shifts them to the upper class.

In case of Pop Art, such formula cannot be applied. On one hand, Pop art , as in Warholian Business Art could be considered low art because of it apparel accessibility. On the other hand, being aware of the contextual meaning of specific artworks under Pop Art gives them a greater value. Therefore, given the circumstances and the freedom of thought, the difference is estabilished by each and every individual examining the works of Pop Art.

What's next?

It is apparent, that as fast as culture moves toward becoming even more mass-production and consumption driven, the cultural acceptance of art becomes higher. On one hand, we do accept popular culture as a form of art up to a certain extend, but on the other hand, the more we re surrounded with it, the more we accept it as a part of our culture and look for something new and original.

The population becomes blind toward the content of art and puts attention to it s visual aspect, as well as it searches for the familiar notions. This creates a more challenging environment for artists. Takashi Murakami and his KaiKai&kiki are clearly challenging their goals and succeed in portraying the national identity through their artwork. Murakami uses the media, and topics in a way, that they become globally accepted, replacing traditional art in the given areas.

The post-war trauma has pushed Japanese Pop Art' s boundaries and encouraged it to bloom and show its 'honne' to the outside world.


  • Jenkins, Henry. Wow Climax : Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture. New York, NY, USA: NYU Press, 2006.
  • Stallabrass, Julian. Art Incorporated : The Story of Contemporary Art. Oxford, , GBR: Oxford University Press, UK, 2004.
  • Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica : How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U. S.. Gordonsville, VA, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  • Tate Modern, London. Pop Life: Art in a Material World, GBR: St Ives Westerham Press, 2009
  • Tate Modern Autumn 2009, Exhibition guide, 2009
  • An Exhibition Tour with Takashi Murakami, available at: [ 13/10/09]
  • New York Magazine: Jerry Saltz at '©Murakami', available at: [ 13/10/09]
  • SUPERFLAT FIRST LOVE 2009, video spot, Available at: [ 13/10/09]
  • Interview with Takashi Murakami by Jonathan Ross on Japanorama, available at: [ 13/ 10/09]
  • Visit to Tate Modern, Pop Life: Art in a Material world exhibition. Visited on: 08/11/09