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Superflat: Images of Women in Japanese Pop Art
Women are represented in Japanese pop art as a reflection of how they are represented in other forms of media- sexual objects, hyper-feminine, and unthreatening. One contemporary pop artist, Takashi Murakami, represents women as sexual objects, often with a Western look. However, Yoshitomo Nara represents woman differently in his works. They are represented as sometimes violent and full of defiant attitude; yet, often with a vacant stare that suggests they have no substance. In this paper I will examine Murakami’s pieces entitled Hiropon and Miss Ko and Nara’s pieces The Girl with the Knife and The Night Walker. The state of Japanese pop art in Japan is very different from the state of pop art in America. In fact, Murakami and Nara are very popular artists in the American art scene. In order for a Japanese artist to become very successful, they must gain recognition in the American art scene first. In the introduction of My Reality Jeff Fleming has this to say of Japanese pop culture: “… many of its sources life in forms of Western entertainment… Japanese popular culture reflects contemporary Japanese society, which is so heavily influence by the West that it can be called a merging of Western and Japanese cultural entities.” (15). Takashi Murakami holds a PhD in traditional Japanese painting or nihon-ga. His keen interests in traditional Japanese artistic technique, pop art, Western art, and his embracement of otaku culture have given him a unique niche in the Japanese art world. Murakami is often called the Japanese Andy Warhol and Michael Darling has this to comment, “[Murakami’s] Pop strategy for mixing references to canonical art-historical figures or subjects with consumer sources in analogous to the work of Andy Warhol…in the early 1960s” (“Plumbing the Depths of
Superflatness” 2). This unique blend of artistic interests and style has lead to his development of the Hiropon Factory, a cooperative of artists, and the new genre of art he calls “superflat”. Superflat is a melding of different aspects of Japanese pop culture into a marketable art scene. It combines the traditional Japanese techniques of flatness (two-dimensional design) of the picture plane and good use of the line and composition, the sexual energy of Lolicom imagery, and a combination of fine art and marketable pop art. The aftermath of World War II also comes into play in Superflat, and according to Darling, “…whether it is the coming to terms with the material, human, and spiritual loss of the war, or in the postwar importation of Western values and products; both are crucial to the thinking behind Superflat” (3). Fully embracing otaku culture, Murakami recognizes anime and manga as valuable Japanese commodities incorporates these ideas into Superflat art. Although Superflat does take forms of Japanese high art, it also blends other form of extremely popular media like anime and manga. Superflat has merged has a new take on Japanese fine art, and one that can be highly marketable. Examining two of Murakami’s works, Miss Ko and Hiropon, reveals a lot about how he represents women. Perhaps taking a nod from anime and manga and the larger popular media in general, women are represented rather stereotypically in both of these works. He has represented women as hyper-feminine with large eyes, white skin, large breasts, long legs, and slim waistlines. In the sculpture Miss Ko, a typical anime-style female is depicted. The character features blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale white skin- all Western characteristic. The eyes are depicted in the large anime-style, possibly depicting innocence. But it is hard to believe this sculpture can present innocence when she is depicted having larger-than-normal breasts, superhuman long legs, and is shown wearing a ridiculously short skirt and stiletto high heels. She wears an oversized bow on top of her head and some sort of fantasy outfit halfway between a maid and a schoolgirl’s uniform. Her left hand is outstretched, she has a pleasant expression on her face, and her legs are playfully crossed, as if in welcoming.
The same themes occur in Hiropon but are even worse. Hiropon depicts an almost completely nude female, once again anime-looking. She wears a tiny bikini top inadequately covering her grotesquely large breasts and no bikini bottoms, showcasing her entirely bare vagina. She wears large blue pigtails with yellow bows on either side of her head, and once again has the large eyes so common in anime. Her legs are long, though not quite as long as Miss Ko. Her right leg is jointed at the knee, and from a front view it almost looks as if she is disabled. She once again features pale white skin and light colored eyes. The most shocking thing about Hiropon, however, is the solidified stream of breast milk spewing from her nipples and wrapping around the back of her body like a jump rope. Yoshitomo Nara’s works, although largely different from Murakami’s art are still part of the Hiropon Factory and Superflat. Nara paints unsettling images of young girls. They are depicted not as cute and sweet little girls but often with defiant attitudes, apathetic or hateful looks, and sometimes yielding weapons. They do not exhibit the hyper-feminine bodies of Murakami’s works, but are depicted as short and plump with large heads and always wearing dresses. In The Girl with the Knife, a young girl is depicted from a top-angle view. She is wearing a red dress with a red hat and features red hair, green eyes, red lipstick, and rouge. Her legs, although showing, are short and stubby. She has large ears and is depicted as plump and overall not very attractive. She is holding a small knife in the right hand, but the knife’s proportionate size is tiny relative to her body. She couldn’t harm anyone with that ridiculously small knife even if she wanted to. Clearly Nara isn’t taking clues from the media or anime and manga on how a woman should look, but this is because of the age group he is depicting in his works. Instead he is making comments on childhood. When the characters in his images yield weapons, he makes them very small as a comment on the violence surrounding these innocent looking young girls in their modern lives.
In The Night Walker, a very Nara-characteristic young girl is depicted. She is wearing a pale green dress, with short and stubby arms and legs. She has a choppy brown hairdo, small nose, and large mouth in a sort of evil smirk. Her large slanting eyes are vacant and blank. She is featured walking in a zombie-like state. This work seems to embody some basic ideas about Nara’s young girls. Darling expands, “…the sculptural heads of young children by Yoshitomo Nara, some with animal-themed headgear, have doe-eyed stares or eyes closed altogether, suggesting an unaware state of being. Nara usually installs of these works high on the wall to give them a weightlessness that further emphasizes their detachment from reality or even their removal from the embodied world of the living” (5). In conclusion, one can draw many parallels between how women are depicted in the works I examined and how they are depicted in larger forms of media. Murakami depicted his female characters very closely to that of anime and manga, and reflective of the Japanese media’s desirable female traits. Murakami’s female characters that were examined come off as merely objects and commodities, presented for those in the otaku culture as well as a larger pop culture audience. Nara, in contrast, did not feature Murakami’s hyper-feminine bodies and depicted his females with more of an attitude. However, Nara’s characters frequently exhibit vacant looks and detached senses of being. They might appear to be disagreeable or even somewhat threatening, but these traits are rendered false when the silliness and detachment of the character is realized, such as the young girls yielding tiny and ineffective weapons. Japanese women cannot realistically live up to the image they see of Murakami’s Western-looking hyper-feminine bodies. Neither can they hope to be respected as intellectual beings when they’re really being represented as sexual objects, and expressing anger is out of the question. Women cannot be taken seriously as angry, threatening, and violent beings without this being deemed childish and impossible as Nara’s works portray. The problems in these representations do not lie solely in Japanese pop art but are verified again and again in the larger media throughout industrialized nations. Changing one aspect of media would be ineffective
towards changing these harmful and misogynist images, thus the whole media’s stereotypes must be transformed if women are to ever be seen as more.