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Virtual Violence

Kawabata said nothing much at the time. Richie had no idea what the older man, dressed in a winter kimono, was thinking. Richie said “Yumiko,” and Kawabata smiled and pointed at the Sumida River.

Asakusa today is pretty much like the rest of Tokyo, dense, commercial, a jumble of neon-lit concrete buildings, with the neighborhood around the Kannon temple filled with nostalgic souvenir stores selling trinkets for the tourists. The old Sixth District still has some movie houses and the odd seedy strip joint, but the action has long moved on, to the western suburbs of the city—Shinjuku, Shibuya, and beyond. What happens there, in the twenty-first century, when so much culture takes place no longer in the streets but in the virtual reality of personal computers, is the subject of “Little Boy,” the exhibition of Japanese pop art currently at the Japan Society in New York.


The curator of “Little Boy” is Murakami Takashi, the most influential visual artist in Japan today. He is a painter of cartoon images, both childlike and sinister, a highly successful designer (of Louis Vuitton bags, among other things), a maker of mildly pornographic dolls, an artistic entrepreneur, a theorist, and a guru, with a studio of protégés that is a cross between a traditional Japanese workshop and Andy Warhol’s Factory. His main idea is to reverse Warhol’s project of turning banal, mass-produced, commercial images into museum art. Murakami wants instead to make art out of advertising, manga—Japanese comic strips—animation films, computer games, etc., and push it back into the market-driven world of mass culture.

Trained as a painter of Nihonga, or modern Japanese-style figurative painting, and an expert on the classical Kano School of painting, which dominated Japanese art between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Murakami believes that Japanese art never distinguished high from low in the manner of European art. The West, he argues, established a hierarchy, which raised a barrier between high art and “subculture,” a barrier that Murakami believes never existed in Japan. To escape from the humiliating and sterile enterprise of copying Western high art, Murakami and his followers wish to rediscover a truly Japanese tradition in the junky world of virtual “Neo Pop.”

Since much of this theorizing comes in the manner of manifestoes, a certain exaggeration is perhaps to be expected. It is not true that traditional Japanese art was not subject to hierarchy. In fact there was a strong sense of high and low. Cultivated aristocrats who attended Noh performances would not have been seen dead in the baroque and raucous Kabuki theaters. The refined scroll and folding screen paintings of the Kano School, mostly done in the Chinese literati–style, were bought by upper-class samurai, most of whom would have treated woodblock prints of courtesans and merchants as the height of vulgarity.3 Some rich merchants cultivated a taste for “high” art too, but they would have been regarded as snobs, just as samurai with a bent for low life would have been seen as dissolute (hence their need for disguise in the Yoshiwara quarter).

It is true, however, that even court painters of the Kano School made little distinction between decorative and fine art. And mastery of past styles, or the style of masters, was, on the whole, more highly prized in Japan than individual innovation. There have been great individualists and eccentrics in Japanese art, to be sure, but the Romantic European ideal of expressing the unique personality of the artist in wholly new ways was not always understood when Japan first encountered the Impressionists, and the effort to emulate that ideal has stymied many Japanese painters ever since. In this sense, perhaps, Murakami is indeed working in a Japanese tradition. His designs for Louis Vuitton bags and his acrylic paintings are all part of the same artistic vision.

Certain aspects of both Murakami’s own art and that of his colleagues are immediately apparent. One is the infantile quality of much of the imagery: the wide-eyed little girls, the cute, furry animals, the winking, smiling mascots that one normally finds on candy boxes and in comic strips for children (which, by the way, are avidly consumed in Japan by adults too). The word, much used to describe young girls and their girlish tastes, is kawaii. The Hello Kitty doll is kawaii, as are little pussy cats, or fluffy jumpers with Snoopy dogs. Kawaii denotes innocence, sweetness, a complete lack of malice.

In the “Little Boy” exhibition the remarkable thing about the childlike drawings of young girls by Kunikata Mahomi, or the computer-generated prints by Aoshima Chiho, or Ohshima Yuki’s plastic dolls of prepubescent girls, or Nara Yoshitomo’s paintings of bug-eyed children, is that these supposedly kawaii images are actually not innocent at all, and sometimes full of malice. When you look at them carefully, you notice a strain of sexual violence. Everything about Aoshima Chiho’s wide-eyed, nude girl lying on the branch of an apricot tree is kawaii, apart from the fact that she is tied up. In another picture by the same artist, cartoonish little girls are sinking into the earth in an apocalyptic-looking shower of meteors. Ohshima Yuki’s plastic dolls at first look like the cute little pendants on a nine-year-old’s school satchel; but on closer inspection they are objects of pedophile lust, half-naked children in suggestive poses. Murakami’s own painting in pink acrylic of a smoky death’s head with garlands of flowers in the eye sockets turns out to be a stylized version of the atomic bomb cloud.

In other works, the violence is more overt. Aoshima’s Magma Spirit Explodes. Tsunami Is Dreadful shows a kawaii girl as a monster spewing fire, rather like a traditional Buddhist vision of Hell (see illustration on page 12). Komatsuzaki Shigeru is obsessed with the Pacific War, which he depicts in a weird mixture of comic-strip exaggeration and hyperrealism. There is much of the souped-up heroic quality of wartime propaganda art in his paintings that is surely deliberate.

The sense of catastrophe, of apocalyptic doom, in much Japanese Neo Pop imagery, echoing the popularity of Japanese animation films and computer games about world-destroying wars and Godzilla-type monsters, is explained by Murakami as a reflection of Japan’s ill-digested wartime past. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, smothered in silence during the US occupation, have left a kind of unresolved, largely repressed rage. Japan’s own atrocities have not been forthrightly faced either. Murakami argues that the US has successfully turned Japan into a pacifist nation of irresponsible consumers, encouraged to get richer and richer while leaving matters of war and peace to the Americans.

Postwar Japan was given life and nurtured by America,” writes Murakami in one of the catalog essays:

We were shown that the true meaning of life is meaninglessness, and were taught to live without thought. Our society and hierarchies were dismantled. We were forced into a system that does not produce “adults.”

Part of this state of permanent childhood, in Murakami’s view, is a sense of impotence, fostered by the US-written pacifist constitution, which robs Japan of its right to wage war. Murakami writes:

Regardless of winning or losing the war, the bottom line is that for the past sixty years, Japan has been a testing ground for an American-style capitalist economy, protected in a greenhouse, nurtured and bloated to the point of explosion. The results are so bizarre, they’re perfect. Whatever true intentions underlie “Little Boy,” the nickname for Hiroshima’s atomic bomb, we Japanese are truly, deeply, pampered children…. We throw constant tantrums while enthralled by our own cuteness.

This, we gather, is Murakami’s explanation of the images of tied-up little girls, exploding galaxies, atom bomb clouds, Pacific War battles, and angry prepubescent children with tiny bodies and enormous heads—the overheated fantasies of frustrated Peter Pans, dreaming of national and sexual omnipotence, while playing the keyboards of their personal computers in the cramped quarters of suburban apartments. This is the culture of otaku, literally “your home,” but used to describe the millions of nerdish fantasizers living inside their own heads, filled with the mental detritus of comic strips and computer games. Not responsible for the real world, the Japanese, Murakami believes, have retreated into a virtual one, which can be blown to smithereens with the click of a mouse. It is all about the war, the bomb, General MacArthur’s emasculation of Japan, and American capitalism.

Murakami and other theorists of this persuasion link these infantile “tantrums” and dreams of omnipotence to the actual violence of Aum Shinrikyo, the quasi-Buddhist cult, whose followers in the 1990s murdered unsuspecting Tokyo subway passengers with sarin gas while waiting for Armageddon. They, too, used apocalyptic fantasies to explode the meaninglessness of the postwar greenhouse. The difference is that these deluded men and women, many of them well-educated scientists, led by the half-blind guru Asahara Shoko, really believed they could find utopia by waging war on the world.

One thing that Aum Shinrikyo, with its paranoid visions of a world governed by a secret cabal of Jews, has in common with the theorists of otaku Neo Pop is a deep self-pity. One of Murakami’s most avid admirers, a cultural critic named Sawaragi Noi, writes to Murakami ecstatically that “the time has come to take pride in our art, which is a kind of subculture, ridiculed and deemed ‘monstrous’ by those in the Western art world.” The crowds at the opening night of the show in New York suggested otherwise, as did the hyped-up press coverage. But Sawaragi goes on to say, “Art is made by monsters at odds with the everyday life we live….” To which Murakami adds: “We are deformed monsters. We were discriminated against as ‘less than human’ in the eyes of the ‘humans’ of the West.”

All this strikes me as wildly exaggerated. No one disputes that the atomic bombings were a terrible catastrophe or that the pumped-up postwar prosperity of Japan did much to bury the traumas of the wartime past. That overdependence on US security—combined with a de facto one-party state—has led to a kind of truncated political consciousness is at least plausible (I have argued this myself). And the humiliation of feeling dominated by Western civilization for more than two hundred years cannot be dismissed. But to explain contemporary Japanese culture entirely through the prism of postwar trauma is much too glib.

Most modern art movements, waving their banners and manifestoes, like to think they are onto something totally new. But the combination of grotesque violence and sexual perversity is hardly new. In fact, there is more than a little ero-guro in Japanese Neo Pop. Nor is the fascination for very young girls, tied up or not, a novelty; Kawabata was obsessed by this theme all his life. Variations of ero, guro, nansensu appear at different stages of Japanese art history. The middle of the nineteenth century, just when Asakusa came into its licentious own, was a rich time for it. The Kabuki stage was given to dark tales of violence by such playwrights as Tsuruya Namboku, and woodblock artists like Yoshitoshi did prints of tortured women, suspended in ropes, and the like. We know about the 1920s, but the 1960s, too, were an ero-guro time, when poster designers, photographers, filmmakers, and playwrights borrowed heavily from the Twenties.

Even though the oversized, indeed grotesque proportions of human genitalia in pre-modern Japanese erotic art give a very different impression than the childlike humanoids in current art, a feeling of impotence goes back much further than General MacArthur’s occupation. It might have something to do with the traditional constraints which have been a constant feature of Japanese society. Who knows, it may even have something to do with overbearing mothers, smothering their (male) toddlers with too much care, before the social handcuffs are applied and early childhood becomes a lost Eden to be pined for until death.

I think Murakami, Sawaragi, et al. are right about one thing: the impotence they protest is political, apart from anything else. Sawaragi draws our attention quite rightly to the failure of the left during the 1960s to challenge the power of the state, and the security treaty with the US in particular. They tried. Students were mobilized in large numbers to demonstrate against the treaty and the Vietnam War, but political radicalism was made irrelevant in the end, not by police brutality so much as the blandishments of ever greater material prosperity. When radical energy could no longer find an outlet in politics, it turned inward, first to extreme violence inside the protest movement itself, and then to ero-guro. It is interesting to see how many artists turned from political radicalism to pornography in the 1970s. Oshima Nagisa, the filmmaker, is only one example.4

In a way, it was always like this. Japan under the shoguns was close to being a police state, with no room for political dissent. Instead, men were allowed to let off steam in the designated pleasure districts, whose courtesans became the stars of popular art and fiction. Kawabata’s Asakusa was a late echo of this. There were periods of rebellion, of course, but when these came to an end, crushed by the authorities, ero-guro would usually gather force.

But the latest generation of artists and consumers, represented in the “Little Boy” show, appears to have lost the sheer physical energy of their forebears in the 1840s, 1920s, and 1960s. Otaku and yurui, another term often used by Neo Pop theorists, meaning “loose, lethargic, slack,” denote a lack of vigor. The eroticism in contemporary Japanese art is virtual, not physical, narcissistic, and not shared with others. It, too, takes place entirely inside the otaku heads. Here, I think, there is a new departure, which is not uniquely Japanese.

The virtual world, in art and life, is perfect for a generation that has broken away from collective effort, be it political, artistic, or sexual. This is why the novels of Murakami Haruki are so successful, in East Asia especially, but also in the West, where the otaku culture is spreading. His characters are disengaged from society, often isolated, living out their private fantasies in a world of their own. This began, in the 1960s, as a quiet revolt against the extended family with all its duties. Traditional arrangements were increasingly being replaced by nuclear families in suburban bed towns. But things have progressed since then. Since family is the main symbol of constraint, people tend to interpret individualism in a narrow way, as a retreat into solipsism, where no one can touch you.

The other escape route from traditional life has been to recreate the family in an alternative way, as theater troupes and hippie communes did everywhere in the 1960s. Murakami Takashi has followed this model, with himself as the patriarch of a family of artists. And yet many of these artists show all the signs of deep self-absorption. The world they express is oddly bloodless, indeed a bit slack, in fact rather monstrous, a grotesque world where all sex and violence are unreal. It is certainly interesting to see what is going on in the virtual world of contemporary Japan. That it often looks so pretty makes it all the more disturbing.

  1. 3

    For excellent examples of high art see the Kano School exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until June 5.

  2. 4

    See my review of Oshima’s work in The New York Review, October 8, 1992.

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