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Cherise Fuselier

March 16, 2006

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.

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