High and Low: Enduring Influence of Japanese Anime in Contemporary Art

Anime can be traced as far back as 1917 with the first generation of animators such as Seitaro Kitayama, Ōten Shimokawa, and Jun’ichi Kōuchi as the “fathers of anime.” But it wouldn’t be until the 1980s that anime would become mainstream in Japan – a boom that can be credited to the likes of Dragon Ball, Gundam, and Macross.

And while anime is a style of film and television animation, it was only a matter of time before it would influence contemporary art in Japan.

Left: Takashi Murakami – My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998 / Right: Takashi Murakami – Hiropon, 2002. | Image source: widewalls.ch Photos credit pinterest.com

Otaku and Japanese Pop to New Warhol of Superflat

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami was absolutely fascinated by “the subculture of geeks” otherwise known as the otaku culture. Murakami would recognize that despite his love for pop culture and that fantasy world, he did not possess the talent to be a success in anime illustration.

But what he did have was the ability to take his anime-esque aesthetic and put it on the contemporary art world map. With work that was easily recognizable for its eye-popping choice of colors and high energy, Takashi Murakami would be known for blurring the line between high culture and pop culture otherwise known as low arts in the early years. And in the mid-1990s, the art world took notice of the man who would be considered worthy of filling Warhol’s shoes in the world of modern art.

But Takashi Murakami didn’t want to be written off as just another pop artist. Instead, his work was highly influenced by the Japanese art-historical tradition. Coining the term “superflat” for his aesthetic, Murakami embodies both the characteristics and nature of the Japanese artistic tradition and post-war Japanese culture and society. And thus his postmodern art movement, Superflat, would take over the art world, drawing in more artists that were also greatly influenced by anime, manga, and Japanese culture.

The curators of Chicago’s MCA would describe Murakami for his vibrant anime-inspired characters and for blurring “the boundaries throughout his career between high and low culture, ancient and modern, East and West.”

Murakami may be known in the West for his collaborations with pop icon Kanye West and fashion house Louis Vuitton or whose work joins the art collections of celebrities like Beyoncé, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt. But his work has deeply influenced a new wave of artists who are taking otaku culture and anime to create aesthetics of their own, proving that anime has an enduring and uniquely cultural influence.

Japanese artist Mr. (née Masakatsu Iwamoto) a protégé of Takashi Murakami, in front of his painting from the exhibition “Sunset in My Heart” | Image source: Timeout.com and photo by Teddy Wolff

Cuteness Obsession, Not So Lost in Translation

Takashi Murakami’s protégé Mr. would find fame on his own for his interpretations of otaku culture. Having watched anime as a child, it would become an obsession of his to the point that it was near impossible for him to separate it from his real life. He would take that fascination and channel it into his art to express himself. His portrayals of prepubescent girls were sexually exaggerated throughout his cartoons, comic books, and even video games. Mr.’s career would extend into pop music with his animation for Pharrell Williams’s video for “It Girl.”

Around the time Aya Takano received her bachelor’s degree from Tama Art University in Tokyo, Murakami was on the search for talented young artists who would help him create the Superflat artistic community. Murakami would meet Takano and see her work. Not long after, she would find herself being the great Murakami’s assistant.

Painting “The Adventure Inside”, 2015 Oil on canvas by Aya Takano x124 | Image source: Pinterest

Aya Takano set out to reinvent the otaku culture through a feminine perspective by depicting how the future and society would impact the role of her female heroine. Curiously, her female heroines were figures who were mostly androgynous and existed through her alternate realities fully nude or only partially clothed.

When asked about how anime, otaku, and manga inspired him, Murakami has this to say, “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.”

 

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