Takashi Murakami at the Tomio Koyama Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

In Japan, the last decade has seen the birth, suppression, and re-emergence of "otaku," a youth sub-culture perhaps best-described as based on obsession. Most otaku are into computers, many also practice adoration of cartoon characters and the collecting of cartoon character paraphernalia. The mid-1990s even found a number of the committed dressing in cartoon character costumes, a practice called "kosupure," or costume-play. The curious fascination has proved contagious, spreading to Europe (especially France), and America – where the word otaku, roughly translated as ‘maniac,’ has found its way into the nomenclature of stay-at-home anime and manga fans and computer nerds alike.

In the growing world of otaku culture, there are few figures more respected than Toshio Okada – a producer whose company developed the animated film series "Evangelion." So, more than a few young enthusiasts took notice last year when Okada dubbed Takashi Murakami the "Ota-King," after seeing the artist’s oil, acrylic, fiberglass and iron piece, "Hiropon." Murakami’s bigger-than-life sculpture is of a wide-eyed, cartoony Japanese girl whose bikini-bursting breasts are each, I swear, easily three times the size of her head – hairdo excluded, of course. But the playful froth-stream-skip-roping "Hiropon" needed a mate. "Why don’t you," Okada suggested to Murakami, "create a male version?"

Possibly because the idea of treating the male body as a sex object does not naturally occur to most Japanese artists, Murakami considered this a formidable challenge, and began to draw up plans for "My Lonesome Cowboy" (288x117x90cm, materials as above, 1998). The sculpture stands at the center of "Back Beat – Super Flat," an exhibition of some two dozen new works by the artist, now showing at the Tomio Koyama and Sagacho BIS Galleries, both housed in an old warehouse just across the Sumida River, in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

As the title implies, this is a show of two-dimensional works, mostly acrylic on canvas paintings. Recurring themes include flowers on the vine sporting humanoid visages smiling a 1970s happy face, and figures that resemble morphed darumas, most of which are grinning in the manner of sinister science-fiction movie dolls, the kind set upon stripping the flesh from a femur.

Aren’t these works frivolous?

"Basically, yes, I hope," says Murakami, 36, "but the flatness, and my message, is serious." Wearing a plain green T-shirt over a pair of shorts, the goateed artist is holding court at a well-attended opening party. The Tomio Koyama Gallery has rented a second room for this show, a 60 square meter corner-storefront located in the same building as their main exhibition space. Young people spill out into the street, crowding the cigar-sucking artist. "I want to explain the origins of Japanese contemporary culture," he says.

It is Murakami’s contention that the otaku culture, which was pushed underground after the 1989 arrest and conviction of Tsutomu Miyazaki – a cartoon-addict who murdered and dismembered young girls and who, it is reported, had a library of some 5,800 anime and pornographic videos in his home – has now fused with popular culture. Murakami believes this may be the first original cultural phenomenon to appear in Japan during the postmodern era, a movement the artist coins as "Poku," from "Pop" and "otaku."

One thing about otaku – they play with themselves. And the strapping "My Lonesome Cowboy," whose slender left arm reaches down to grasp a big purple penis that is spewing an arcing stream of white up into the air, certainly fits the image. This is an arresting figure, with a shock of purple hair and eyes all alive in orange, red and turquoise.

Regarding that penis – isn’t the artist worried that authorities might intervene as they did two years ago when Sheree Rose showed her blow-up Bob Flanagan doll with his pin-pierced member over in Ariake?

"We have a bunch of flowers that we can throw over the penis if the police come," explains Murakami. But a young male gallery staff member has a different plan, "If the police come down the hall, we’ll close the door and lock the gallery," he says.

Have the otaku truly come out?


notes: Until Oct 17, 1998.
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