Superflat Japanese Postmodernity
This text was originally lectured at the MOCA gallery at the Pacific design Center, West Hollywood, on 5 April 2001.
Superflat and Otaku nationalism
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.
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, reAmericanize otaku culture, re-Americanize the Japanized American culture. "Superflat" is not an authentic successor of "pop" but its hybrid, mixed, fake bastard.
Super, Flat and Database Postmodernity
Until now, I have chiefly talked about a cultural background of superflat, that is, the relationship of Japaneseness and otaku culture. From now on, I want to talk about an abstract, a little more philosophical side, that is the relationship between otaku and postmodernity. When talking about Superflat, Murakami emphasizes its superficial quality. Superflat world has no depth, no "camera eye", no perspective. A radical explosion of imagination and figurative experiment emerges to fill out this lack of the depth. With Lacanian psychoanalytical terms, it can be said that the lack of the symbolic is supplemented with the imaginary. However, I do not think this account is sufficient. The postmodern otaku culture behind the works Murakami collected here seems to be not only one-dimensional but providing with a certain special "super" -- a kind of depth, postmodern depth. It is not only flat but also "super", just as this exhibition's title shows. What is it? The word "postmodern" or " postmodernity" has been widely used to analyze the cultural phenomena after 1970s. Two typical points are often discussed in its context. One is the argument by a French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard. He argued that in the postmodern era "the grand Narrative" which had unified the entire system of knowledge disappears, and that the unity of society is broken up into a lot of various "small narratives" or cultural communities. Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist, makes the other point. He argued that the modern distinction between the original and the copy, the real and the image, is already lost, and that everything becomes simulacrum in the postmodern era. The former emphasizes its political or social change while the latter is rather aesthetical or cultural discussion, but these two arguments are eventually supported by the same intuition. In the postmodern era, after the 1960s or 1970s, our society is little by little losing the value of "Depth", the value of something behind the visible or perceptible things we are confronted with in our dairy lives. It may be God, Truth, Justice, Nation, Ideology or Subject depending on the cultural context and all such "grand" things are now losing its credibility --- so say postmodernists. Therefore, we can say that the concept of superflat is exactly and typically postmodernist.
However, I think that postmodern culture has a more complicated structure. It should not be regarded as just a superficial or one-dimensional market. It is also supported by the sensibility of a depth of another kind. I am writing a long book on this postmodern depth, which will be published within this year. My conception in the book is that we should grasp this postmodern depth as "Database" rather than "Story". In other words, the postmodern social structure is based not on the invisible ideology but the also invisible information like the Internet. Our society is losing the grand Narrative but constructing the grand database in its place and the simulacra covering the postmodern surfaces are actually controlled and regulated by the database. As postmodernists often say, all the postmodern works (not only fine art but literature, music and many pop cultural works) are created not by being led by an idea, not an authorship nor an ideology, but by deconstructing and reconstructing the preceding works or re-reading them in a different way. In other words, postmodern artists or authors prefer dismantling the preceding works into some elements or fragments and reassembling them repeatedly rather than expressing their own authorship or originality. The accumulation of those fragments (CDs, video clips, web sites...) now becomes a kind of anonymous database from where new works emerge. I believe you can find this tendency in almost all genres including the recent Hollywood movies and techno/house music. Here I will give you some examples from Japanese otaku culture.
This is an advertising leaflet of a PlayStaion game put on the market in this spring. We should remark these 12 girls are not designed as a single person. The elements of their designs are totally determined according to their type of character. The purpose of the game is to enjoy pseudo-communication and pseudo-love with one of them according to the player's taste. The number of characters can become larger and larger and you can find many similar examples in the otaku shops in Tokyo. This example shows that the present otaku culture has a strong tendency to become anonymous and database-type culture. Otaku now needs no authorship nor originality nor even message in those cultural products. You can choose your favorite design and character through the combination of elements pulled out from the big database.
Another example. These female characters. As you can see, they look very odd and not so beautiful but they actually gather more and more otaku fans these two years. It is remarkable that they are created without any story in any media. It is originally designed for advertising use by a certain otaku products shop in Tokyo. Their design is typically directed through a combination of several otaku elements like green hair, cat ears, rabbit ears, bells, housemaid clothes, school uniforms, a cat tail and large hands and feet etc. You can easily find all those elements in any ordinary anime films. Those three characters are designed by intentionally emphasizing and expanding their grotesqueness. Therefore, we can say that they are constructed as a kind of malicious parody of the entire situation of the otaku culture where any new work is made only from the combination of the already existing elements. It is a kind of irony that it put the success in commerce. Otakus themselves are conscious of this database tendency. This goes on both in story types and graphical elements. Here is an interesting Internet search enginespecialized for an otaku use. This site accumulates tens of thousands of
amateur comic writers and illustrators and classifies them according to various standards; anime titles, sexualities, genders and "elements". This is very useful. If you are a male otaku and feel some sexual attachment towards a female figure with a cat tale, swimming uniform or so on, you can easily access many sites including your favorite illustration without even knowing the author's name. Many peculiar designs found in Japanese animes and games (and in this exhibition) are actually based on the large accumulation of anonymous types and elements. They are made following a quite different process from that of the characters in Disney animation.
To understand the evaluation/consumption structure of otaku culture, it is necessary to distinguish two levels of otaku's desire. One is the level of simulacra where the odd images like the examples above fill the market. The other is the level of database that consists of the types and elements and regulates the scope of simulacra. Otakus evaluate, decompose and re-create their imagery through a kind of round-trip between these two levels. Their desire toward those two levels are quite different from each other. In one hand, otaku is addicted to and absorbed in the given simulacra imagery. They often say that they feel stronger realities in the imagery than in the real world. We can call it a "wet" and exclusive desire. They can satisfy it alone without any social communication with humans. However, in the other hand, otaku is perfectly "dry" towards the works in the level of database. They rather feel big zeal in decomposing the unity of the given work or character into types and elements, rearranging them and making another new work or character. The big amateur market called Comike is supported by this desire. On this level, the otaku behaves in a sociable and communicative manner because it is indispensable for them to exchange their information about the new fashion of database. They love the favorite character but also love to decompose and recompose it. Therefore we can say otaku is both wet and dry, both introversive and extroversive, both maniac and schizophrenic.
Another more example. This is a diagram showing the structure of the computer game called "novel game" in Japan. This is not for PlayStation or Nintendo but exclusively for adult Windows users provided with pornographic pictures. The game system consists of a multi-ending story expressed as a textual novel, related illustrations and background music plus sometimes character voices. No movies or simulations. The player (generally male) reads sentences on the screen, selects choices and aims to accomplish the sexual relationship with a girl he has chosen. The novel game plays an important role in the otaku culture these five or six years because the above mentioned two-layer structure can be expressed most clearly in their consumption. In the left side are the actual screenshots you can see while playing the game. In the right side are the raw data of which the screen consists. The screen of novel games is made by overlapping two or more different pictures (as the background and the character), textual fragments and MIDI music.
The novel game is basically sexual ones but it is remarkable that many of them adopt the guise of classical love story where the player and his heroin are fatefully led into a serious tragedy, which must be overcome. We can say that, in some otaku communities, they are beginning to take a role equivalent to that of traditional romances. Some games now hardly include pornographic pictures although they are welcomed enthusiastically by a hundred of thousands otakus. Here is an interesting contradiction. The novel games have plural ends in definition. It means that the player should do love with plural heroines while each of them is claimed to be his lifelong partner partner. This contradiction proves that there exist two kinds of desires towards these novel games. One is a romantic fantasy with which otaku players read them. The other is an insisting zeal to analyze, decompose and rearrange all the data included in the games. Consumers of novel games are often provided with an abundant knowledge of computer and a hacker-like character. They voluntarily develop and circulate many free softwares which decrypts the data pack of the games and extracts the raw images and texts from there (as I am using one of them to make this chart). The data obtained is naturally misappropriated to many amateur activities. For instance, the image clips called "mad movies" are being constructed and exchanged in the net otaku communities. Some of them are the movies consisted of all the original data and original music while its changes are only the combination. I am sorry not to have an appropriate example here. The activities of this kind are of course a serious threat to its original copyrights but they are also thought to be an inevitable result from the essence of novel games. As shown, a novel game is based on the system that makes one story on the surface from the combination of many fragmentary pictures and texts deep in the database. Therefore, it is natural that otakus may think they can reconstruct another "version" of the original game while recombining the same data in a different way. Otaku culture consists of two layers of simulacra and database. The former is visible and the latter is invisible. Seeing an illustration of a certain anime character, an otaku does not only appreciate the superficial design aesthetically. He or she immediately decomposes the image into many elements and feels zeal to reassemble them up into another character. The superficiality of otaku culture is so complicated. There is the database instead of the camera eye behind it. We can say that the "super" of "superflat" means this database depth. However, I should point out that Murakami's paintings are not totally in the logic of otaku culture. He rather attempts to transfer the feelings of two layers into the context of contemporary art. He attempts here to cut off the existence of the invisible database borrowing only the otaku's superficiality and to make it visible in a paradoxical way. The result is that, so to speak, an <overvisual> plane where one has an illusion to see what he or she cannot see. I do not insist that all the artists in this exhibition are conscious of such a strategy. I do not think so. As I remarked at the beginning of today's talk, the "superflat" is neither a unified art movement nor a clear concept. This exhibition is led only by Murakami's personal intuition. What I want to say here is that there seems a paradoxical desire to bring the sense of "database" to the surface of his painting although he always insist on his figurative exploration.
Let us think through an example. These are Murakami's paintings drawn in the late 1990s. You can find two most characteristic features there. One is that there are floating many images made by transformation from the same
prototype and arranged randomly. The other is that the painting is filled with symbolized anime-like eyes. The former means a lack of the perspective system that unites many possible gazes into one and stabilizes the whole space in this picture. Murakami often formulates this feature as a "world without the camera eye" and compares it with anime imagery. The latter indicates that the object of the desire proliferates to supplement the lack of the unified camera eye. Murakami chooses the image of eyes here. However, I think this selection reflects his unconscious intuition over the database postmodernity. The image of eyes has played an especially important role in the otaku culture. The way to draw eyes and to take the ratio of eyes and faces is an essential key of the character's success in the market because it reflects most clearly the designer's attitude towards the otaku database. In other words, the anime eyes play a decisive role to lead people from the layer of simulacra to the layer of database.
Finally, I will end today's talk with a brief allusion to the old European painting titled "Ambassadors" which Hans Holbein drew in the early 16th century. As you can see, this painting has a strange oval-shaped thing in the lower section. This image represents nothing in the ordinary perspective but you can see an image of a skull emerging when looking into the picture obliquely from the lower right far away from the picture. This kind of playful exchange of the gazes was called "anamorphosis". In other words, there are two different spaces overlapped in this picture. One is a classic perspective space with a gaze straight towards the picture. Another one is an anamorphosis space with a sideway and oblique gaze. Jacques Lacan, a famous French psychoanalyst, interprets this coexistence of two spaces as follows.
The European perspective is just an artificial institution. It unifies the entire space of the picture with excluding other possible gazes like that of anamorphosis. It is only after this process is finished that we can see the realistic ambassadors in front of us as if they would exist in reality and see us in their own eyes (this picture is actually drawn in the life-size). Lacan argues that any artificial institution necessarily has its own rupture and that in this case it turns back as an anamorphosis in this Holbein's paintings. Therefore, the image of anamorphosis, a scull, lacks eyes. In the perspective space, we can see each other (the ambassador's gaze) only in the condition of excluding the other possible gazes so that in the anamorphosis space we can never see anyone's gaze. Lacanian psychoanalysis regards this relationship between one gaze and the lack of the gaze as a kind of analogy to the entire society and subjectivity. I wrote a short essay about this in the catalog.
From this point of view Murakami's paintings can be said to express a quite different structure of the world, that of postmodernity. His painting has no perspective at all while there are many eyes there. However, the Murakami's comiclike eyes are different from Holbein's human eyes because they do not stare back at the seer. Otakus can only project their emotions onto them one-sidedly or look into the layer of database through the simulacra eyes. Murakami here represents the postmodern bilateral structure visually covered with many multiplying holes to database after the modern absolute perspective is lost. Confronted with anime or game imagery, we are not stared back at by the author's gaze but by an anonymous database. The Super of superflat is the database, and the flat is the simulacra.