Superflat: The Aesthetic Reaction to Post-War Japan
When someone starts naming aspects that make up a culture, sometimes art is easily forgotten or thrown at the bottom of the list. However, art is an incredibly important part of a country’s culture. It documents major historical events, categorizes the general feelings of the populace, provides social commentary, and illustrates a country’s traditions and way of life. Art is a mirror of culture; it materializes the overall presence of a nation and puts it on a national and international stage, allowing the rest of the world to witness the culture at hand. By focusing on pieces from certain time periods, the condition of the nation can be interpreted by examining its art. In the years after World War II, Japan underwent some major domestic and societal changes; the people’s reaction to this change was reflected in the nation’s art. This major post-war Japanese art movement is called Superflat and its meaning and interpretations truly show the discord and upheaval Japan was experiencing at the time.
Firstly, the stage must be set. Japan was suffering severely in the years after World War II. After taking the hit of atomic bombs on two of Japan’s major cities and suffering a stifling defeat by the Allies, Japan was physically, emotionally, and economically destroyed, forced to begin rebuilding her nation from scratch. One of the first major changes in society that resulted from the war was the laws of inheritance. Japan was a patriarchal society so typically the first son in the family would inherit all entities from his parents when they passed. However, World War II resulted in most the first sons being killed in battle or as civilian casualties, so the law was changed to give equal inheritance to all children. This embedded a sense of independence within the younger generation; each child, male and female, was finally favored equally. This gust of individualism generated a surge of nationalism in the country as it started to reconstruct its way of life and, more importantly, its economy. Men and women alike began working and striving to rebuild Japan, allowing the economy to slowly work towards her recovery, a process which would begin in the early 1950’s.
Before the war, Japan was focused on industrialization and westernization, trying to catch up to the wealthy western powers and the rest of the world. This goal became the nation’s aspiration as she worked to return to the forefront of industrial leaders. Villages became towns, towns became cities, and cities became economic powerhouses. Farming slowly became a less common profession; the age of the samurai permanently turned into the age of the businessman and, by the end of the 1950’s, Japan was rising, returning to her state before the war. The nation was becoming more industrial and more western which was working in her favor. Japan would finally restore the honor she lost in her devastating defeat in 1945.
However, the economic boom in the 1950’s was not accepted by all; for some it angered them and magnified their rage at the world and trauma. People believed that Japan was losing its fundamental values, the values it was founded on, and was throwing them away to mimic the societies of those who defeated them. Takashi Murakami, a famous Japanese pop culture artist, was disgusted by Japan’s modernization:
I think that those who were able to enjoy consumer culture and the world of consumerism were in the countries that were victorious in the war. And by the countries that were victorious in the war I mean the U.S. and the British. Societies that lost the war, like Japan, envied the consumerism of the winners but they still wanted at least to be able to borrow what they envied (“The [Art] World is [Super] Flat”).
Murakami felt that the influx of consumerism and western thought was not caused by the spirit of nationalism but by jealousy of the success of Japan’s conquerors, which only defiled Japan’s honor instead of restored it. The new lifestyle of Japan was only covering the nation’s wounds instead of healing them. These feelings of cynicism spurred Murakami and others to express themselves through their paintings. With Japan’s modernization, the country was losing the aspects of her culture that made her unique, enriching and honorable. The culture was losing her complexity, distinctive dimensions and color; the culture was becoming flat. And thus the Superflat movement was born.
Although major changes in Japanese society began in the 1950’s, Superflat originated when Murakami moved to New York City in 1984 and exposed himself to the American pop art scene. Delving into his newfound encounters with American art and his experience with Japanese anime and manga, Murakami combined these elements while sketching in his studio and began to inspire other artists to attempt using this mix. Sharing the same annoyance with Japanese society, many attributed to the Superflat movement and agreed that this would be a beneficial way to express their views. The pieces have been exhibited internationally, recently in 2000 in Los Angeles and 2011 in New York City.
Superflat artists began creating pieces that mocked Japanese consumerism and attempted to remind Japan of her roots, her trauma, and her need to keep her individuality. The art form takes familiar images in the new Japanese society and skews them to reiterate that the nation was heading in the wrong direction. In Figure 1, The World of Sphere by Murakami, the Japanese economy is being mocked. Louis Vuitton and other commercial icons float in the background, showing the insignificance and superficial nature of the industry. In the foreground is a panda, embodying the cutesy style of advertising for which Japanese billboards and commercial are known. It reiterates the senseless, unhealthy focus on appearances in the culture and its lack of any meaningful substance.
A second well known example of Superflat art is another piece by Murakami shown in Figure 2, Flower Superflat. Again, it shows that Japan is becoming a nation like all the others. Represented in the identical flowers, Japan is slowly becoming an indistinguishable flower in a bouquet, losing all the colors and qualities that made her unique, thus losing her individuality. The consumer culture and lack of traditional values and morals does not make Japan stand out from the other countries anymore. The country is becoming “super flat.”
Another artist who contributed to the Superflat movement is Yoshitomo Nara. Abiding to his signature style of incorporating wide-eyed children into his paintings, Figure 3, Wind, embodies the disapproval and hatred some Japanese felt about the lack of values in their society. The subject’s expressionless face and convicting glare may only seem to superficially illustrate a child unexpectedly woken up from a nap, but its unwavering gaze in relation to the time period is a testament to the lack of enthusiasm over foundational changes in the country. The plain background and simple lines speaks in the same way Figure 2 does; Japan is becoming unoriginal and her war wounds may never be truly healed.
Superflat, which has become an iconic part of Japanese cultural history, conceptualized and materialized the nation’s flaws and turn from cultural values, showing part of the population’s disapproval of Japan’s societal changes. All the pieces that make up this movement, Murakami’s included, reflect the discomfort of the culture as it treads the unknown waters of capitalism, commercialism and westernization. Within the Superflat movement, the artists hope that Japan will see the errors in her ways and return to a more dignified way of running society, where character and discipline were more important than finances and success. The art of this time allows the world to learn about this little piece of Japanese history and start to understand why it is the nation it is today, whether it is a good or bad result.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. “The (Art) World Is (Super) Flat: Takashi Murakami on His Art Philosophy and Upcoming Charity Auction.” Gallerist. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
“Japanese Economic Takeoff after 1945.” Indiana University Northwest. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Matsubara, Haruo. “The Family and Japanese Society after World War II.” Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
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