takashi murakami

Murakami Studio, Brooklyn, N.Y., February 24, 2000

Mako Wakasa: I would like to ask you about Poku (Pop + otaku) and Super Flat paintings as well as your view of the present and future Japan and the relationship between your art and Japanese culture. First, regarding Poku Culture, you wrote that you are aiming to represent that culture through your work because you expect that animation and otaku might create a new culture. It seems natural to me that you are a fan of animation, but I wonder why you are so interested in otaku*. This is because most people in general do not have a favorable impression on otaku. I first learned about otaku through the serial murders of little girls committed by Tsutomu Miyazaki. The University of Tokyo recently introduced an undergraduate course on otaku culture. In fact, it is a new phenomenon that otaku has drawn public attention, while you started paying attention to otaku a long time ago.

Takashi Murakami: When Miyazaki’s room was revealed to the public, the mass media announced that it was otaku space. However, it was just like my room. Actually, my mother was very surprised to see his room and said, “His room is like yours. Are you OK?” Of course, I was OK. In fact, all of my friends’ rooms were similar to his, too. The only thing that Miyazaki was “different” from us was that he videotaped dead bodies of little girls he killed. There is a deadly competition among otaku. I guess Miyazaki was a loser because he lacked the critical ability of accumulating enormous information in order to survive and win at a debate among otaku. His collection of otaku goods was not so great, either. The primary reason that I want to represent otaku culture comes from the public ignorance of otaku; most people dislike otaku because they have no access to information on otaku. I am one of the losers who failed to become an otaku king. Only a person who has a superb memory in order to win at a debate can become a king of otaku. Since I didn’t have that ability, I became an artist. There is a difference between an artist whose creativity stems from otaku-like ideas and a genuine otaku who can win at a debate to be the king. Most people do not recognize the difference. In addition, I thought I could grasp an understanding of present Japan by analyzing otaku. So, in 1993 I started to incorporate otaku into my art.

Wakasa: Are all otaku animation fanatics?

Murakami: No. There are tank fanatics and war fanatics. Otaku originated in science fiction fans. Therefore, animation is favored because it often includes SF.

Wakasa: What are otaku like?

Murakami: OK. I begin with my latest discovery about otaku. I think otaku are discriminated against in this society. I read Chusei no Hinin to Yujyo (Pariahs and Harlots in the Middle Ages) by Yoshihiko Amino. According to Amino, the idea of “art” came from the West during the Meiji era (1868–1912). Prior to that, all kinds of art, including dance, music and paintings, were considered entertainment. People in the lowest class called hinin and kawaramono engaged in entertainment. They also worked as guardsmen for the Emperor. Under the samurai rule, a hierarchical status system of samurais, peasants, artisans, and merchants was established. The emperor was at the top of the hierarchy and hinin were rendered bottom. But, these two classes were mysterious. They are still mystified and nobody is willing to talk about them. Japanese intellectuals often comment that Japan used to have a discriminatory system, but none now. But, in my view, otaku is discriminated against in the contemporary Japanese society. The latest example of the discrimination is the suppression of the Aum Cult. They committed murder. However, religion usually seems to have the latent nature of ideological war which makes people kill each other. It occurred in the present Japan and caused widespread fears. I am not taking Aum Cult’s side. However, I’m not surprised that Aum Cult emerged in Japan and that it was connected to otaku culture. Most of the newly developed cults consist of people like the otaku because they are so severely discriminated and alienated that they either choose to join these cults or create new cults in their desperate search for salvation. Then, when I consider what Japanese culture is like, the answer is that it all is subculture. Therefore, art is unnecessary.

Wakasa: Unnecessary?

Murakami: Yes. I am sure that’s why nothing new is coming out of the Japanese art scene. Neither my art nor Mariko Mori’s art are new.

Wakasa: What do you mean by “not new”?

Murakami: There is no new philosophy.

Wakasa: What about Poku culture.

Murakami: It is sophistry in order to market my work by doing presentation regarding subculture.

Wakasa: Is it OK for you to say that?

Murakami: Yes. Everyone works in order to make a living. So do I. I expected that some people would be interested in my art if I offer an expression such as Poku culture, since it is funny.

Wakasa: Even though your art expresses the reality of the present time, do you still assert that your art is not new?

Murakami: I express hopelessness.

Wakasa: Your art looks positive to me.

Murakami: If my art looks positive and cheerful, I would doubt my art was accepted in the contemporary art scene. My art is not Pop art. It is a record of the struggle of the discriminated people.

Wakasa: For example, how about the life-size sculptures such as Hiropon?

Murakami: Why do Japanese have to love Greek sculptures? What do Buddhist sculptures mean in Buddhism? Iconolatry occurred in order to disseminate foreign cultures among people more easily. Considering a Buddhist sculpture such as Nyorai, it might have been like an animation figure. It was accepted with the vague aesthetics of that time. Although today people think that Nyorai was recognized as a beautiful statue from the beginning, the evaluation of Nyorai just might have changed with centuries. It is highly possible that the statue was merely considered to be a new and pretty one in fashion, or an icon for people to escape from reality. Considering what is an icon of that kind now, I think of a 3-D animation figure. It started with Sporn in the US and Ram in Japan. Japanese can buy very cheap 3-D animation figures, thanks to cheap Chinese labor. This is a product out of labor exploitation. In order to understand and describe why this culture has emerged, I caricatured it and created a life-size sculpture.

Wakasa: Is that the main reason why you decided to them “life-size”?

Murakami: Another reason is that the viewers are surprised when encountering large-scale sculptures. They ask what they are, while they don’t ask much about my smaller sculptures because they look at small sculptures all the time.

Wakasa: The smaller sculptures are sold in editions of 100, right?

Murakami: Yes.

Wakasa: Where are they sold?

Murakami: At otaku shops.

Wakasa: So are the sculptures merely animation figures for otaku?

Murakami: No. They are art. Therefore, otaku dislike my work. They don’t want me to reveal their discriminated status. Otaku want to be left alone because they are happy by themselves, when enjoying events for otaku (underground comic fairs) like the Wonder Festival or comike (comic market), where 350,000 – 400,000 people come together. Comike attest to otaku’s struggle to maintain their fantasy even though they become alienated from society. I think it is strange that neither students riots nor popular demonstrations occurred when the nuclearplant at Tokaimura exploded. Usually, when people resent injustice and inequality in societies, demonstrations take place. But, in Japan all the people who have such resentment become otaku.

Wakasa: They don’t show their anger, confining their emotion inside.

Murakami: They don’t have to, because they have emotional vents such as the Wonder Festival and comike for blowing off steam. So, they don’t have to hold demonstrations.

Wakasa: Do they have no interest in improving our society?

Murakami: No. They know that they can’t get away from the structure that maintains the discriminatory system against them.

Wakasa: They have already given up, haven’t they?

Murakami: Yes.

Wakasa: Why have they given up?

Murakami: Please think about yourself. Have you also given up?

Wakasa: Well, I don’t know. I went to New York. Perhaps because I also had given up.

Murakami: I guess so. Most Japanese have given up. Since I’ve also given up, I took a studio in New York. What I am trying to create is neither commercially acceptable nor sustainable in Japan.

Wakasa: How about presenting your work in Japan after gaining favorable recognition abroad?

Murakami: It’s not commercially acceptable in Japan anyway. Who wants to buy anything that reveals discrimination within society?

Wakasa: Even though your work is very popular in New York?

Murakami: It is not sold so much.

Wakasa: Are there any collectors in Japan?

Murakami: The difference about art consumption between Japan and New York is that it is a hobby in Japan, while it is an ideology for creating culture in New York.

Wakasa: How about museum curators in Japan?

Murakami: It’s a hobby for them.

Wakasa: Even museums?

Murakami: Are there any great museums in Japan? There are no great museums in Japan such as MoMA in New York and the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Wakasa: What about Art Tower Mito Contemporary Art Center?

Murakami: No.

Wakasa: Do Japanese museums own your works?

Murakami: No.

Wakasa: I thought some museums do.

Murakami: I don’t want to complain about such a situation because that is Japan. I don’t think it’s bad. I’m representing the current situation of Japan. It’s a proof that I was born and have grown up in such a place.

Wakasa: You never said anything like that during your interviews in the past.

Murakami: I did. But, the media didn’t print it because they were not interested in it. But I don’t care. It’s fine with me. That’s the way of consumption in Japan. On the other hand, I think I should continue to propagate against it so that the media feels guilty. Japanese media failed to inform people that the accident at Tokaimura was the fifth worst nuclear accident in the world. Farmers who lived within five hundred meters from the accident have already returned to the normal life.

Wakasa: Why was there no coverage?

Murakami: It was a kind of news blackout by telling that it was not serious. I think the Tokaimura nuclear accident is one of the worst disasters after the World War II. It was as harmful as Aum Cult’s gas attack in Japan. The Japanese government suppressed the truth. I’m afraid many people will be dying because of the nuclear accident. I learned about the accident from the news in New York, although no Japanese newspapers carried it. I also read through the Internet. Most Japanese don’t bother to get such information. Even if they do, they would not be galvanized into action because they don’t believe that their action would affect any changes.

Wakasa: Do you think American collectors and gallerists understand your works?

Murakami: Yes. I explain it to them and they accept it for what it is. They think that my art provides them with knowledge about Japan that they lack. They listen to me because they want to understand Japan. On the other hand, most Japanese would not listen to me when I start talking about otaku. Japanese journalists say that since they don’t understand otaku, they can’t write about my work.

Wakasa: I recently saw the film, Love and Pop.

Murakami: I thought it was excellent.

Wakasa: I was disgusting by the first 20 minutes, but eventually I came to think it was good because it looked very real in depicting the real life of Japanese high school girls The film’s main theme, enjo-kosai (teenage prostitution, directly negotiated between girls and men). These girls engage in prostitution to be able to buy luxury items, like Prada bags. They are free of any sense of guilt or shame. I wonder how the majority of Japanese think about this phenomenon. There is something very pathological about Japanese society.

Murakami: The emergence of enjo-kosai in Japan seems natural to me. I think enjo-kosai will spread more and more, not only in Japan, but also in Korea and China. Unlike the West, there are no regulations in those countries.

Wakasa: Is enjo-kosai a fantasy?

Murakami: Yes, because it’s about value. The value is going out with high school girls.

Wakasa: It's a male fantasy.

Murakami: For girls, famous brands are equal to their fantasy.

Wakasa: Are you positive or negative toward otaku?

Murakami: I don’t want to take sides. There must be many people who feel saved by my paintings just as the Japanese of the 13th century found salvation in iconoclastic Buddhist monks such as Shinran and Nichiren. Many people even can’t perfectly become otaku. Because I believe my art can have a positive effect on them, my motivation to create is growing from something personal to something higher.

Wakasa: In the beginning, making art was a personal matter for you?

Murakami: I wanted to be commercially successful. I just wanted to make a living in the “entertainment” world, but since then my motivation has changed.

Wakasa: How?

Murakami: What I have done so far was to make a living. And I was highly strategic about what kind of paintings I should make for that purpose. Even this interview could be considered good for business.

Wakasa: Now, aren’t you contradicting yourself? You said you expressed yourself in your art.

Murakami: Only those artists who have an ability in marketing can survive in the art world. Damien Hirst is a good example. Through his art, you can see the process of how an artist can survive in the art world. First of all, distinctively situate his/her position in art history. Second, articulate what the beauty of his/her art is. Next, sexuality. Then, death. Present what he/she finds in death. If an artist aptly rotates this cycle, he/she can survive. Damien Hirst has been repeating the cycle of birth, death, love, sex and beauty.

Wakasa: Doesn’t every artist try to repeat that cycle?

Murakami: Yes. That’s why Picasso has been continuously consumed as well as Warhol. This attests that artists that have a sense of the market make the best of the rotation. The reason why Matthew Barney is not doing well is that the style of his works remains similar. In addition, he couldn’t make an effective presentation in the theme of death. On the other hand, Damien Hirst expressed death so successfully by slicing cows that viewers understood him. He also succeeded in expressing beauty with his dot paintings.

Wakasa: But even though artists know marketing well, they don’t necessarily become successful.

Murakami: Of course, not. It depends on talent of an artist.

Wakasa: All your projects were very successful.

Murakami: Because I conducted research about the art market. There are examples of what an artist should do at a certain age. If someone wants to survive in any field, he or she should conduct research about the field he or she belongs to. But, most people don’t bother.

Wakasa: But taste should also be reflected in art.

Murakami: Yes, otherwise there is no reality in it.

Wakasa: In your case, your taste happens to fit your strategy.

Murakami: The reason why my art is not popular . . .

Wakasa: It is popular.

Murakami: No. In my prospect, I should have been as popular as Damien Hirst and should have been put on a cover of an art magazine like Rirkrit Tiravanija. In fact, I wasn’t. It was the limitation of my talent. I know how to present my work, but in order to be very successful, an artist has to break through a thin membrane. It takes another talent.

Wakasa: You said earlier that there are people who feel saved by your work. Who are they? I like your work but I don’t feel saved by it.

Murakami: There are festivals as entertainment, which are necessary for people to live. In the US, club culture is strong. Rock’n Roll concerts are also powerful. Of course, they exist in Japan, too. In the similar context, there is a comic market in Japan, which is held twice a year. Amateur cartoonists sell magazines they made. Otaku who feel discriminated from society come there. Do you know cosplay (costume play: comic fanatics making costumes of characters in comics themselves and go out in them)?

Wakasa: Are they otaku?

Murakami: Yes. Recently more girls are becoming otaku. I think it is because there is hopelessness in Japan. It’s a closed world with no way out. So, they have to live in a fantasy. I also escape from reality. I feel as if I were a former-samurai sculptor of Buddhist statues in Osamu Tezuka’s manga Hi no Tori (Fire Bird). In the manga, the samurai kills so many people without knowing what he is or why wants to live. But when he happens to curve a wooden statue, people around him are so impressed with it. A priest finds a talent in him and encourages him to pursue the career. Then, his talent blossoms and he becomes a great artist. I think an artist is a person like him. It’s a minimum resistance by a person who dares resist against his or her nihilistic perception: I cannot change anything. Therefore, people who have given up resistance find security when they look at art made by a person who is still resisting. They can have a fantasy that they might be able to resist, too. This is the role of the artist . That’s why I am making art.

Wakasa: It sounds different from otaku.

Murakami: No. You don’t understand because you have never been to comike (comic market). You have never seen the place where 450,000 people get together for only two days. It has more visitors than a Woodstock concert. All those people look so happy there. But you can’t imagine what kind of people they are. Many of them have atopic dermatitis all over the bodies and are abnormally obese. They are ugly. That’s why they are disliked. There are some persons physically deformed. Who can help them in Japan?

Wakasa: I didn’t know that at all.

Murakami: For them it’s truly a salvation. It’s the same as the Shingon sect gave in old times. People get together at comike because they think a truth exists there. Because I have been studying otaku for a long time, I have a solid understanding by now. However, you cannot understand otaku by merely looking at the surface. Even people who come to comike themselves don’t want to accept the reality that they are suffering from atopic dermatitis.

Wakasa: Are girls wearing comic costumes, too?

Murakami: Yes. People on photographs often happen to be pretty. They become stars. Some girls suffering from atopic dermatitis aim to be like them.

Wakasa: Although you are trying to make a positive contribution to the society through art, you seem to have given up improving the situation in Japan.

Murakami: Yes. I think there will be a revolution in Japan within fifty years.

Wakasa: Because there will be a limit of endurance?

Murakami: There will be a peak. The Japanese definitely will make a revolution. It’s not a war against foreign countries but a civil war such as Meiji Restoration. Unfortunately I don’t know so much about economy and politics. However, when I look at Japan from top to bottom as an “outcast,” I guess the revolution will be unavoidable. This is because I am very happy now. In fact, it is quite abnormal that an outcast like me is happier than others.

Wakasa: I didn’t perceive from the published materials about you that you are such a political person.

Murakami: I think there should be a strong dark emotion within an artist in order to continuously create powerful works. I am making a catalog of the exhibition entitled “Super Flat” at Parco Gallery. It will be bilingual. The exhibition will travel the world. I curated it, including sculptures and comics. In addition, for promotion, I am conducting a series of dialogues on the magazine, Kokoku Hihyo. The first series includes me, Mr. Toshimichi Otsuki, a producer of Evangelion, and Hiroki Azuma, the philosopher who is familiar with otaku. I would like you to read the journal because I am stating discrimination in Japan from the viewpoint as an otaku. Being as an otaku, I can be a catalyst.

* Otaku is an obsessive fan or collector of anime, the Japanese animations based on manga. For more information on otaku and Takashi Murakami, visit the artist's website.

Translated from the Japanese by Mako Wakasa and Naomi Ginoza.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.