Like the answered prayers of a cargo cult, a consignment of shiny robots, pneumatic girls, and celluloid explosions landed at LA MOCA'S newest satellite gallery at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood in January 2001, as if dropped from Japanese supply planes. "Superflat," which would later descend on Minneapolis and Seattle, was the brainchild of artist-impresario Takashi Murakami, who had honed his curatorial concept in two shows at Parco department stores in Nagoya and Tokyo's Shibuya district the year before. Though the American incarnation was bigger (and included some different artists and works), it was primarily for the Japanese exhibitions that the bilingual Super Flat catalogue had been conceived and printed. The same year that the show traveled stateside, Murakami exhibited his own line of superflat art in Paris, Boston, New York (at Marianne Boesky Gallery and in Grand Central Station), and on the cover of the June edition of Art in America. "He's here; he's there; he's everywhere," proclaimed the New York Times. By the summer of 2003, Murakami really was everywhere. While his large-scale paintings and sculptures were selling for more than half a million dollars at auction, smaller Murakami collectibles could be snapped up for a few dollars on the Internet, and the collection of limited-edition bags and accessories he designed for Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton had already become the fetishes of the global fashionista.
Never has a self-proclaimed art movement had better market coverage from the outset or more successful niche marketing at every level. Murakami's assault on the Western art world was calculated for maximum cultural impact and profitability. Superflat (the two words of the Japanese catalogue became one Google-friendly neologism on arrival in America) was a branded art phenomenon designed primarily for Western audiences and markets at a time when the Japanese contemporary art market had been decimated by the bursting of the economic bubble. Murakami is, after all, a man who read Bill Gates for management tips when setting up his artmaking company, Kaikai Kiki, based--with a nod to Warhol--at the Hiropon Factory in the suburbs of Tokyo, where he employs a business manager in addition to forty-odd assistants who execute paintings and other tasks according to Murakami's specifications.
"Superflat" was the name given by Murakami to a sensibility he discerned in Japanese culture, past and present, characterized, by a lack of perspective, an extreme planarity, and an interest in particular kinds of movement, expressed graphically. It was evident in the traditional nihonga painting in which Murakami himself was trained (to PhD level) and in the ukiyo-e prints of Hiroshige; it pervaded the fantasy worlds of manga and anime; and it informed the work of a new generation of artists, illustrators, designers, and animators whose products were showcased in the "Superflat" exhibition that toured America. These included Yoshitomo Nara's strangely menacing paintings of bulbous-headed infants; the groovisions design collective's "chappies"--an army of expressionless mannequins; the videos of animator Koji Morimoto (who worked on the seminal anime film Akira); and work by the fashion group 20471120.
Murakami's writings on superflat charmingly--and cleverly--position it within a history of art in which it is the successor to both Japanese visual traditions and Western Pop art, while also displaying an insider's knowledge of so-called otaku subcultures. Otaku (the English word closest in meaning is "geek," or perhaps "fan") are fanatic consumers, collectors, and purveyors of manga, anime, and video games. In Japan, mainstream usage of the word has had negative connotations since the late '80s, when four little girls were murdered by Tsutomu Miyazaki, whose loner lifestyle and cultural obsessions were described by an alarmed media as otaku. …