Superflat Japanese Postmodernity

This text was originally lectured at the MOCA gallery at the Pacific design Center, West Hollywood, on 5 April 2001.

Large figures are in preparation.



Superflat and Otaku nationalism

superflat geneology

I would like to begin today's lecture with a glance to the relationships between Murakami's superflat conceptuality and otaku culture. "Otaku" is a Japanese word indicating a new cultural group which emerged in 1970s, consisted of enthusiastic consumers fascinated by various post-war Japanese subcultures, for example, manga, anime, Sci-Fi, tokusatsu films, models, computer hacking and so on. Otaku is now thought to be one of the most important factors in any analysis of Japanese contemporary culture, not only because many artworks and industrial products that originated from otaku culture are internationally accepted, but because their mentalities are beginning to have a great influence on Japanese society. Aum Shinrikyo, the terrorist cult that scattered poison gas in Tokyo metros in 1995, is known for their eschatological dogmas deeply influenced by 1970s' and 1980s' animes and gathering a broad sympathy from otaku generation even after their terrorism.

Murakami himself belongs to the first otaku generation, which consists of those who are born around 1960 (Murakami was born in 1962), and he admits publicly that his superflat style was established based on both Japanese premodern art tradition and postmodern otaku products. Murakami's superflat conceptuality highlights an artistic quality of the otaku sensibilities. Nevertheless, the actual relationship between superflat and otaku is more complicated than an influence. To understand its entanglement, we should note the fact that otaku culture and its products have generally suffered an unjustified disregard by many intellectuals and critics these 10-15 years in Japan, while they are very often argued as a kind of sociological phenomena. Murakami's project is now changing this situation but sometimes he still faces misunderstanding. We can point out three causes in this neglect of the otaku culture. I think the understanding of those factors is essential to understand the cultural position of the superflat and the structure of Japanese postmodernity.

The first and the simplest reason is that the otaku is widely regarded as an anti-social, perverted and selfish people who stick to computers, comics, and anime imagery without any real communication or social activities. This kind of prejudice has been prevailing since 1970s, but it was most strong in early 1990s because a famous serial killer in Tokyo, Tsutomu Miyazaki, who raped 4 children and ate parts of their bodies, turned out to be a typical otaku when he was arrested in 1989. Many newspapers reported his arrest with an impressive photo taken in his small room where thousands of videotapes and comics are piled up to its ceiling, hiding almost all walls and windows. Consequently, many people, including leading journalists and politicians, began to think of otaku culture as a symbol of pathological problems in the young high-tech generation filled with sexual and violent imagery.

The second cause is that the otaku themselves have a strong collective hostility towards those who cannot or do not share their behaviors. Reading science fictions, seeing TV animes, going regularly to special shops in Akihabara, collecting subcultural gadgets and participating in the Comike market -- those activities consist a kind of community and they want it closed. Their introversive and defensive tendency can be understood as a kind of inevitable reaction against social pressures I have just mentioned, but it has actually prevented the non-otaku critics from scrutinizing and criticizing otaku works.


Murakami is not an exception. As a contemporary artist with international fame, he is regarded as outside otaku community so some writers and artists attack him furiously. These pages are written by one of the most famous and influential Japanese comic writer, Fujihiko Hosono, and published in one of the most selling magazines last autumn. Here Hosono caricaturize and critisize Murakami's project with describing a poor otaku whose genuine ideas are "exploited" by him. Considering this strong distrust towards those outside otaku community, this superflat exhibition -- at least its original version in Tokyo -- must be highly estimated because Murakami succeeded here in gathering otakus' genuine cooperation. This aspect of the exhibition would not be so important in the international art context. But I dare to emphasize it for I believe, in order to enjoy the variety of this exhibition, it is indispensable to understand that Murakami's organization is not led by a single concept as his statement seemingly suggests, but based on the complicated negotiations and politics to bridge different cultural groups. Superflat contexts are many.

The third cause of the neglect of the otaku culture is the most remarkable and interesting, but more complicated. It is connected with a socio-psychological problem of Japanese post-war identity.

Since the end of the World War 2, the Japanese have long suffered from a serious difficulty to evaluate and be proud of their cultural tradition straightforward. There are two reasons. One is political; in Japan, any affirmative attitude towards Japanese identity has been likely thought to be a political right-wing expression as the action of forgetting or liquidating Japanese military "crime" in the war. This atmosphere still exists, and this is very serious for any intellectuals or academics.

The other is more sociological; the so-called "Japanese tradition", for example the literature, fine art or the Emperor system is in fact the historically new construction after Meiji Revolution, and now Japanese society has been so deeply Europeanized and Americanized that any nostalgic return towards its traditional, original, or "pure" Japaneseness, seems a fake. You can easily find how Japanese typical landscapes actually are in contemporary films or comics, those filled with Seven-Elevens, McDonalds, Denny's, comics, computers and cellular phones...they are all of American origin.

In addition, my point here is that it is the otaku culture that reflects most clearly this mixed, hybrid, bastardized condition; that is, the paradox that we cannot find any Japaneseness without post-war American pop culture. I guess most Japanese intellectuals are feeling a strong psychoanalytical resistance towards admitting this condition.

The otaku culture in general is often claimed to be a sort of cultural successor of premodern Japanese tradition, mainly the Edo tradition. This succession is emphasized by leading otaku critics like Toshio Okada or Eiji Otsuka. According to their pretension, the consumptive structure of manga or anime is remarkably similar to that of Kabuki or Joruri in Edo era. Murakami's argument you can read in the catalogue is on the same premise. He draws a direct line from Kano Sansetsu to Yoshinori Kaneda, that is, from the 17th century paintings to 1970's anime films. This conception can be analyzed as a variation of the prevailing idea that premodernity and postmodernity is directly connected in Japan without enough modernization. You can find this cliche everywhere in Japanese postmodernism.

However, the reality is more complicated. However attractive or persuasive the similarity between Edo culture and otaku culture seems, we should not forget the simple fact that otaku culture could not have existed at all without the influence of American subcultures. Manga, anime, tokusatsu (SFX movies), SF novels, computer games, all are of American origin and imported from the US with its post-war occupation policy. The otaku culture should not be seen as a direct successor of Japanese premodernity, but as a result of the recent "domestication" of post-war American culture, which was developing just at the same time with Japanese rapid economical growth and the recovery of national self-confidence in 1950s and 1960s. In this sense, otaku culture is essentially "nationalistic" though its characteristic and expression are far from those of traditional ordinary nationalism.

You can find the most ostensible example in the TV anime film titled "Spaceship Yamato", which was broadcast in mid-70s and is still very popular. The story is typical; one spaceship with heroes saves the earth from the alien's attack. However, remarkable is that all the crewmembers are Japanese, no foreigners, and the story emphasizes their spiritual and self-sacrificing philosophy, which is no doubt the imitation of that of Japanese pre-war military. The name of the spaceship "Yamato" actually means "Japan" in poetic language and the spaceship itself is made from a salvaged Japanese navy warship sunk in the famous battle of the World War 2. The implication is clear.

sociopsychological backgrounds of otaku

The otaku culture is a sort of the collective expression of post-war Japanese nationalism, although their surroundings in reality are thoroughly invaded and traumatized by American pop culture. This paradox necessarily leads otaku artists and writers to the twisted, ambivalent, complicated and a sort of self-caricaturized expression of Japaneseness. You can find this obsessive distortion of identity just in the artworks exhibited here, for example, Bome's sculptures, Murakami's paintings or Anno's films. It may be interesting to analyze the politics of their distortion, but here I rather give you another example from outside the exhibition, a Japanese ordinary TV anime titled as "Saber Marionette J", which was broadcast several years ago. Its world reflects the structure of the twisted psychology of otaku nationalism very clearly .

The story is a mixture of Sci-Fi and love comedy. It is set in an odd planet where there exists only men and all female figures are androids without any human feelings, called "marionette". However, the story begins with an accident that the protagonist happens to encounter three marionettes with human heart. He began to live with them but later finds that they are made to be sacrificed for the resurrection of a human female. Their sacrifice is necessary because the only surviving lady has been captive in the satellite high in the space by the uncontrolled artificial intelligence. The humans on the planet planned to make the special marionettes with faked hearts to trick the computer into believing their faked heart as authentic ones and liberate the human female in exchange for three marionettes. Informed of this plan, the protagonist is forced to face the serious choice. On the one hand, there are the anime characters that are accompanying, sexually appealing and sometimes seem to have real hearts -- but in reality faked artifices. On the other hand, there is a human girl he never met, never knew, never communicated with but who has a real heart. I think this choice is nothing but the reality for many otakus and in this sense we can understand "Saber J" as a kind of allegory abstracted from the actual otaku situation. It is suggestive that the protagonist cannot choose any alternative by himself. It is by marionettes that the decision is made. Maybe this passiveness is a key to understand the otaku mentality.

Nevertheless, the most interesting in the context of today's lecture is the imaginary role of Edo culture in the program. The landscape of the future city where its story develops is designed as a simulacrum of Edo landscape like an amusement park. It seems symptomatic because, in the 1980s, at the beginning of Japanese postmodernity, the Edo era and its culture was strongly preferred by many writers, artists and critics including both postmodernists and otakus. Their preference toward the association between the 80s' postmodern society and the premodern Edo can be easily explained once you recognize the above-mentioned process of "domestication" of the post-war American culture. In the mid-80s, many Japanese were fascinated with their economical success and tried to erase or forget their traumatic memory of the defeat in the World War 2. The reevaluation of Edo culture is socially required in such an atmosphere.

This preference is not only prevailed in Japan but also supported by some foreign critical discourses. Alexandre Kojeve, a French philosopher who published the reading of Hegelian historical philosophy, is often referred to because he interpreted the Japanese Edo era as a precursor of the postmodern society after the "End of History". Roland Barthes, another French critic, also depicted Japanese tradition as a realization of postmodernism. We can add much more names to this list, for example, Wim Wenders, William Gibson, Rem Koolhaas and so on. Japan has long been represented as a mixture of premodernity and postmodernity in Western discourse over these 30 years. This kind of "Orientalism" was imported back into Japanese society in the 1980s and since then the Japanese themselves began to explain their postmodern reality based on their premodern tradition going back to the Edo era. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the deepest psychosocial element beneath this tendency is the (impossible) desire to deny the post-war American cultural influence. The postmodernity came from the U.S. although the Japanese wanted to take it back to their national tradition. The otaku culture is also originated from this desire.

In this context, you can easily see the paradoxical position of this Exhibition Superflat. Otaku culture is the result of Japanization of American pop culture. However, Murakami intends here to bring it back to its origin, that is, re-Americanize otaku culture, re-Americanize the Japanized American culture. "Superflat" is not an authentic successor of "pop" but its hybrid, mixed, fake bastard.

last revised 5/27/2001

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