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The robot cat Doraemon, left, and Nobita in the
1998 anime film "The Return of Doraemon," in "Little Boy," at Japan Society.

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Created: April 8, 2005
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By Roberta Smith
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April 8, 2005
ART REVIEW | 'LITTLE BOY'
From a Mushroom Cloud, a Burst of Art Reflecting Japan's Psyche
By ROBERTA SMITH

Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture," currently wedged into Japan Society, is not just another art exhibition. It is a fast-moving visual spectacle with a mission, orchestrated by the Japanese artist-impresario Takashi Murakami - he of Vuitton bag fame.

"Little Boy" displays works by 10 contemporary Japanese artists amid a veritable cavalcade of greatest hits from postwar Japanese popular culture. Among the latter are examples from five decades of almost identical Godzilla toys and a truckload of paraphernalia - stuffed toys, purses, clocks, music boxes - of the ever-cute Hello Kitty franchise.

Americans may be less familiar with the robot Gundam, the action-hero Ultraman and the semi-inept robot cat Doraemon, who preceded Hello Kitty, first as a popular manga (comic book) in 1970 and then as a television anime that is still a popular staple of Saturday-morning cartoons in Japan. In addition, the show is sprinkled with screens playing excerpts from beloved anime and tokusatsu (special effects) monster movies, starting with the mid-60's "Ultraman" television series. These days the "Ultraman" panoply of rudimentary effects seems like a delirious compendium of postmodernist camera strategies.

Yet this exhibition is not simply about the relationship between high and low art, a distinction that is especially hard to make in Japan and that Mr. Murakami argues does not exist. Instead, his goal is to show how Japan's popular culture reflects its national psyche, which also sheds some light on the psyche of its chief protector, the United States.

The exhibition's title pointedly incorporates the code name for the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Prominently displayed in the first gallery is Article 9, Chapter 2 from the Japanese constitution that went into effect in 1947. It reads, in part, "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right," and "The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

This show proves once more that pop culture provides an especially direct view of the repressed unconscious of creator, consumer and society alike. In Mr. Murakami's eyes, the connection is especially close in Japan because the collective unconscious has worked overtime to absorb the largely unexamined trauma of Japan's role in the war, the atomic-bombing of two of its cities and the prolonged American occupation.

Mr. Murakami holds that these traumas have created a lot of displaced emotions - anxiety, shame and a pervasive sense of impotence - that have found their outlets in popular culture. (Fittingly, the show's title also evokes the way Japan's dependence on the United States has kept it from growing up.) These feelings are reflected in two opposing tendencies. One is a fascination with violence and power, visible in the building-crunching monsters and mushroom-cloud explosions frequently used in Japanese animation. The opposite pole is an infantalizing sense of powerlessness that is played out in the obsession with what is called kawaii, or cute, as exemplified by Hello Kitty and other irresistible characters.

In "Little Boy" Mr. Murakami sets out the artifacts representing these tendencies, and then shows how they have been twined together in a darker subculture called otaku (nerd or geek is the nearest translation). Otaku are nihilistic misfits known for their obsession with nuclear catastrophe, monster films, science-fiction anime and manga, and what might be called an inappropriate fixation on schoolgirls. (From the evidence here, the obsession, at least with anime, seems entirely justified.)

The show also examines how otaku attitudes and subjects have been adopted by the artists on display and that figure in the increasing international stature of contemporary Japanese art. For a better understanding of the complex cultural ecosystem explored here, I recommend attention to the show's outstanding bilingual catalog, which has essays by Mr. Murakami; the Japanese art critics Noi Sawaragi and Midori Matsui; the American critic Katy Siegel; and Alexandra Munroe, the director of the Japan Society Gallery, who invited Mr. Murakami to organize "Little Boy."

Mr. Murakami's role in recent Japanese art is complex. To cite American models, he has functioned a bit like a combination of Jackson Pollock, the chief innovator, and Clement Greenberg, the chief explicator, of Abstract Expressionism. He was one of the first Japanese Neo Pop artists to break the ice in terms of recycling Japanese popular culture. Then, in Mr. Murakami's work, writings and the exhibitions he organized, Neo Pop mutated into the more historically conscious Superflat style, which embraces the emphasis on surface decorations and patterns indigenous to Japanese visual traditions. With "Little Boy," the final show in Mr. Murakami's "Superflat Trilogy," which Japan Society has organized with the Public Art Fund, things become even more elaborate because psychology is introduced.

The show is a sociological argument made with visual evidence, but because this evidence comes from one of the world's most aesthetically sophisticated and refined cultures, it packs a tremendous visual punch. At times one can do nothing more than hang on for the ride. The first gallery is dominated by a tank-size head of the robot Gundam. Behind it is an imposing phalanx of Hello Kitty ephemera, including wallpaper. To one side are Aya Takano's drawings and paintings of wide-eyed prepubescent, but sexually knowing, waifs. To the other side, cute goes monstrous in five plush, big-headed puppetlike costumes for yuru chara, regional mascots that represent nearly every local government in Japan. They suggest cuteness as public policy.

Sometimes the show progresses with almost textbook clarity: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Looking from the assortment of cuddly Doraemon toys to Shigeru Komatsuzaki's action-packed watercolors of World War II sea battles, which once decorated the packaging for model kits of destroyers and fighter planes (and influenced the first anime artists), is to contrast pure cuteness with equally childish fantasies of violence and power.

Nearby, Mr. Murakami self-consciously brings these extremes together in "Time Bokan - Black," a painting of a spectral skull whose eyes are composed of his signature flower faces. Westerners would not be incorrect to link this work to the skull images of Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter, but it is based almost exactly on the ghostly image from "Time Bokan," a children's television anime whose every episode ended with an apocalyptic explosion.

Around a corner one encounters a more unexamined meeting of cuteness and implied violence in the exquisitely crafted and colored netsuke-size plastic figures of schoolgirls with oversize breasts. These objects of male desire are the work of the illustrator and bishojo (beautiful girl) creator Ohshima Yuki. They exemplify the otaku sexualization of kawaii (cuteness) along Lolita-like lines and are among the hottest collectibles on the otaku scene.

In a further twist, the otaku bishojo have been appropriated by an emerging generation of young female artists including Ms. Takano, Chiho Aoshima and Chinatsu Ban, who return the figures to a state of androgynous flat-chested girlishness while also giving them a greater sense of autonomy and emotional complexity. Their colorful paintings look to manga, children's art and Japanese screens for inspiration.

In Izumi Kato's evocative paintings and carved and painted wooden sculptures, which are being exhibited in this country for the first time, infancy itself - the epitome of kawaii - acquires a dark, withdrawn tenor. His naked figures seem suspended in embryonic helplessness while reviving Expressionism, in contrast with yet another display of unadulterated cuteness: scores of small, childlike plastic personifications of people and animals from the Kitahara Collection of vintage Japanese toys.

"Little Boy" is Mr. Murakami's show from beginning to end, to such a degree that it might almost be considered an extended artwork. The distinction between fine and commercial art does not entirely disappear, but it is frequently rendered pointless by the sheer inventiveness of much of the work.

In the end Mr. Murakami has attempted psychoanalysis on a national scope in exhibition form, while creating what is arguably the most daring, thought-provoking show yet seen at Japan Society. Those who visit it stand an excellent chance of having their understanding of Japan, its culture and its history profoundly shaken.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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