Ever wonder why the Japanese are so obsessed with cuteness? An exhibition curated by artist Takashi Murakami at New York's Japan Society goes a long way toward explaining that country's obsession with Hello Kitty toys, wide-eyed anime heroines, funny-looking monsters and Lolitaesque schoolgirls. Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture uses manga, anime, model toys and fine arts to relate the aforementioned phenomena to the defining event in modern Japanese history: the dropping of the two atomic bombs in 1945.
"The exhibition makes a convincing argument that these pop-cultural artifacts represent a kind of collective unconscious," explains Amy Kurlander, former manager of publications at the Japan Society Gallery. "It's an unconscious which is still working its way through traumatic materials concerning the Pacific War, the Atomic Bomb and its aftermath." The phenomenon consists of two seemingly contrasting styles, explains Kurlander. There's the violent, apocalyptic imagery of anime and manga which often deal explicitly with the catastrophe and cute, happy, anodyne objects like Hello Kitty. "They seem very different, but they are actually two sides of the same coin," she explains. "They exemplify a culture which isn't really growing up a culture which refuses to grow up."
Curator Murakami is well known as the artist who invented the "Superflat" art style in Japan. Superflat art which is essentially two-dimensional made a connection between the 2-D style of anime and manga and traditional Japanese art, which operated without the use of perspective. Superflat also draws on postwar ephemera like manga to provide a kind of visual nexus for contemporary Japanese culture. It crosses fine art with pop culture to make the point that, in Tokyo, distinctions between the two are becoming increasingly blurred. The Little Boy exhibition (named after the atom bomb that razed Hiroshima) shares many concerns with Superflat, not least its exploration of the childishness of contemporary Japanese pop culture.
Murakami combines both the artifacts and the art in a single work by posing an army of model Godzillas in front of an extract of Article 9 of the postwar Japanese constitution. That's the section that institutionalizes the country's postwar pacifism. This bleak-looking artwork is perhaps the most direct expression of the exhibition's theme, according to Kurlander.
"It's an interesting juxtaposition," she explains. "The constitution was a formative moment in postwar Japan in a social and political sense. It renounced the use of the military and war. This renunciation is seen as a big factor in the infantilism of Japan, as many wondered how an 'adult' country could give up its right to self-defense."
"Godzilla was an equally important, formative event in the cultural sphere," Kurlander says. "The first Godzilla film came out in 1954, not very long after the end of the war. Godzilla is obviously directly related to the atom bomb the monster is revived by radiation. But people have also said the way the fire comes out of his mouth and destroys Tokyo reminds them of the firebombing of the city. Godzilla is a powerful way of showing how the artifacts are linked to postwar history."
Japan, of course, is well-practiced at denying the atrocities it committed during its imperialistic march across Asia during the Pacific War. So it's disappointing that the Japanese artists represented in the exhibit fail to explore the country's relationship with its brutal and imperialistic past. The ruminations on postwar culture are a form of navel-gazing, obsessive about the bombings but ignorant of the terrible events like the Rape of Nanjing that Japan perpetrated against China and the rest of Asia. "That is true, and that point is not raised," agrees Kurlander. "That is another dimension of the childishness and the infantilism of contemporary Japanese culture. The Japanese simply refuse to take responsibility. Murakami himself is actually very open to criticism about this. But it's just not a subject that he has chosen to focus on."
Postwar impotence, rather than prewar aggression, is the focus of the show. At first glance, Izumi Kato's figurative wooden sculptures look like primitive totemic works. But a closer look reveals them to be vulnerable rather than powerful, useless rather than strong. "They are like primitive figures, but they lack the physical power that those artworks usually have," explains Kurlander. "They don't have the sense of fecundity and fertility of primitive sculpture. Kato's sculptures seem impotent rather than fertile, and look somewhat embryonic. This is another way of depicting an infantilized society."
Toys are everywhere in the gallery. Forty-year-old Kenji Yanobe has devoted his career to developing artworks that contain radiation suits. His Atom Suit Project features a life-size radiation suit designed by the artist, surrounded by toy figures wearing their own customized versions. "Yanobe shows that even artists from the generations who weren't born when the bomb was dropped are dealing with its effects," says Kurlander. "Yanobe has designed many artworks like this, and even visited Chernobyl in a homemade radiation suit which he designed himself."
Nevertheless, on the evidence of the Little Boy exhibition, contemporary Japan has a lot of growing up to do.