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Cool Japan / Takashi Murakami: 3/11 brings Japan's subculture into perspective

Takashi Murakami (Atsushi Takanami)

After the Great East Japan Earthquake last March, the artist Takashi Murakami has been involved in various efforts to assist the victims of the quake and tsunami.
Widely popular abroad for combining elements of the subculture with traditional painting, Murakami is also known for his pointed criticism of today's art world.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Murakami, 50, also criticized the government for failing to provide adequate support to Japanese artists to allow them to enter more deeply into overseas markets.
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Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: Can you tell us about the "Gohyaku-Rakanzu," a 100-meter long painting depicting the 500 arhats (enlightened followers of Buddha who have attained nirvana) under the theme of Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake?

Murakami: Looking back at Japan's history, in times when natural disasters, such as earthquakes and famine, have been prevalent, new religions have emerged for people seeking salvation, and new culture and art have also been born.

Belief in the 500 arhats has also spread at such times of difficulty, and paintings and sculptures have been created for memorial services or to ease pain.

Having learned how our ancestors dealt with crises they faced, I developed the desire to paint my own work of the 500 arhats.

It is a form of discovering new themes by learning from the lessons of the past.

The work involves connecting 100 paintings, with each canvas three meters tall and one meter wide. About 100 staff members have been involved in the production.

I hope as many people as possible view the work as a memorial to March 11. (The work is currently on display at an exhibition in Qatar)

Q: Japanese animation and manga are being praised abroad now under the theme of "Cool Japan." How do you feel about your role as standard-bearer for that trend?

A: No one overseas talks about "Cool Japan." That is a lie and rumor.

It was intentionally created to satisfy the pride of the Japanese and is nothing more than ad copy to allow public funds to go to advertising companies.

While Japan's manga and animation are slowly being understood abroad, even if the cultural background and context may be difficult to comprehend, it is only being accepted by a small group of fanatics. It is nowhere near a level of becoming a business, so there is nothing to be especially excited about.

I have gained attention abroad as an individual artist named Takashi Murakami, and I have no connection whatsoever with "Cool Japan."

Q: What do you think has led to your acceptance overseas?

A: I believe it comes from creating works after analyzing Japanese aesthetics and simplifying it in a manner in which people around the world can say, "I think this is what Japanese beauty is."

I considered animation and the "otaku" geek subculture that emerged after the end of World War II on the same level as traditional paintings from the Edo Period (1603-1867) and combined elements of the two. I created works by reconstructing such elements to match the context of Western art history.

I have done that in a strategic manner covering many details, and I believe that is where my originality lies.
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Q: Why has the Japanese government tried to sell such elements of "Cool Japan" as animation, toys and fashion to overseas markets?

A: That only profits a small number of people who work for advertising companies.

None of the money goes back to the artists and such efforts are a waste of taxpayers' money.

Now the animation and video game sectors are losing market share to other nations, and with mergers and consolidation continuing the situation is a catastrophe.

Personnel is not being developed because not only is the pay for creators low, but much of the work is being subcontracted out to foreign nations.

Those sectors are now in the process of a decline in prestige.

Q: Under such circumstances, what is needed to better transmit Japanese culture to the world?

A: Better protection of copyright.

Presently, even if contents from Japan are sold abroad, there is very little profit. With the rights to making video images and other rights also being acquired by foreign interests, there is no avenue for profits to return to Japan.

Under such a condition, should everyone be so excited about "Cool Japan"?

There is an urgent need to establish a legal structure, starting with copyright, that will allow for profits to be returned to the artists.

Despite that need, the Japanese government knows nothing about the business situation, and it has lost the initiative in international copyright trends to the United States. It is in a state of confusion, incapable of implementing any effective measures.

Q: Are you saying the West has a better environment for artistic activity than Japan?

A: I would not go that far, but in the West, museums have a large number of curators who are capable of adequately appraising works of art and there is also a method for attaching value to such works. There is also a trustworthy art market that has the ability to appreciate things of beauty.

Although the media may be somewhat hostile, members are well-versed in matters so there is meaning to going up against such journalists.

About the only thing Japan has is many art museums. Journalism tends to criticize in terms of impressions and looks down on the market. Auction companies have been known to include forgeries in their catalogs.

Looking at education in Japan, art universities emphasize only a baseless freedom and do not provide any sense of direction to their students.

Although discipline and training is needed in art, no instructions are given in such matters.

With the declining birthrate and national universities converting into corporations, students have become customers and teachers pander to the students.

As a result, students who do not have even the basic level of manners and who can only create egocentric, immature works are being let out into the real world.

Nothing with an edge will emerge from such an environment.

That is why there are almost no artists in Japan who can make a name for themselves by going abroad.

Q: But, how about such genres like manga and animation in which there has been a unique development in Japan?

A: After Japan lost in World War II with the dropping of the atomic bomb by the United States, it did not have independence as a state, but was able to lead a peaceful daily existence by depending on the United States.

What emerged from such circumstances were the subculture and otaku culture. That is a culture that is like an idle flowering.

A proper framework is necessary to ensure that an idle flower develops into something much bigger, but there is no interest in such matters or a willingness to do the work needed.

I have concentrated on how to move to the top position in the world.

Japanese are incapable of becoming No. 1 in the world in golf or tennis because they become satisfied with the easy life that can be led in Japan.

Because local governments use art to activate their communities, artists can also lead the easy life, so they have no interest in going abroad, and they are encouraged to create works without a strong basis.

Everything is lukewarm.

Q: On the other hand, why have you held charity auctions to provide assistance to the victims of the natural disasters as well as argued for an end to nuclear power plants?

A: After 3/11, the situation has become one in which we cannot lead an easy life as before. We have to work to change society by having independence.

I believe I have to take action as an individual artist.

As a result of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and radiation contamination, there have emerged areas in Japan where people are prohibited from entering.

The government sent the Self-Defense Forces to such areas and tried to appeal politically that it was doing something under the name of decontamination while SDF members were being exposed to radiation.

Radiation contamination is even now spreading to various areas. Despite that, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that the nuclear accident was under control and tried to argue that the situation was under control.

That is a lie. Even though the government should understand the dangers, it continues to tell lies and the media reports that as is.

Because I am an artist, I have no constraints so I can say that a mistake is a mistake. I will continue to say that in the international community. I will become such an activist.

Q: You intend on becoming an activist?

A: I feel I am carrying on the genes of a number of artists whom I respect, such as Hayao Miyazaki. They did not create their own works only to be accepted by the public. They did it because they really wanted to change the world.

Even though all we may do is draw paintings or create sculptures, the work of artists such as myself is to make people more aware through such activities.

However, thinking normally, the world will not change just because of something like art.

In contemporary society, art is powerless and meaningless. But, all we can do is continue with it because there absolutely has to be some people who are encouraged or inspired by watching our activities while struggling in agony with the creative process.

* * *

Takashi Murakami's exhibition "Ego," which includes "Gohyaku-Rakanzu,," is being shown at the Al-Riwaq exhibition hall of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, through June 24.


By TS on Mar 12, 2012
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Author:T. SATOH