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  • Superflat and the Layers of Image and History in 1990s Japan
  • Thomas Looser (bio)

"Japanese [people]," wrote Murakami Takashi in the year 2000, "are too unaware of history"—echoing what by then had become a trite sentiment.1 For Murakami, one remedy lay in art, or at least in what might be thought of as a kind of critical image. And in rethinking art as history—not merely art as representing history but art as putting into practice a new relation of and to history—Murakami seems to believe that art potentially has real social and political force. He makes this clear even in his first widely disseminated statement on Superflat art, simply by calling it a "manifesto."

Superflat imagery is also eclectic, bringing together, for instance, both the traditional Japanese early modern woodblock prints and postwar Japanese anime;2 pop and subculture with "high" art; the culture of the early modern Edo period and the 1960s with culture at the end of the twentieth century; and so on. But in the particular way that these artistic, economic, and historical elements of difference are brought together, the implicit claims for Superflat imagery are fairly big: Superflat art, it seems, will open up a new life (or a new "sensibility") in the present, which includes new "seeds" for the future.3

I want to take at least a few of these claims seriously. If nothing else, the truly global reach of popularity attained by Murakami may be reason enough. [End Page 92] The central elements of this chapter are the layering and emphasis on surface relations (sometimes reductively described as a mere "flatness") and the connections made by Murakami and others between the early modern Edo era and contemporary Superflat culture—as seen, for example, in the "ukiyo" prints of Nara Yoshitomo (see Figure 1). Murakami has always been eclectic, but his early shows (and critics associated with him) gave greater emphasis to this connection with early modern Japan, while more recent shows have an almost exclusive focus on World War II and its aftermath.4 Although I find the earlier arguments more compelling, this shift in histories of the Superflat is also significant, and I return to it toward the end of this chapter.

Before getting to the details of Superflat image space, I want to lay out a bit of context—starting with apocalypse. As I think is now well known, by the 1990s the image of apocalypse was quite common, at least in Japan—in the so-called new "new" religions, for example, but also as the starting point of a whole range of anime films (as in films associated with the Gainax company lineage in particular, but elsewhere, too). Cultural analysts have tended to cite Japan's atomic bomb experience as the principal factor behind these apocalyptic images, and while those explanations are clearly important,5 I think there is perhaps still more to it.

The image of an apocalyptic beginning (as well as a completion or ending) can in some ways be thought of as a problem specific to the context of Japan in the 1990s—I come back to this below—but it is also a problem of modern history in general.

Arguably, within modernity, if there is anything that holds things together at all, it is history. History provides the grounds of association between a range of knowledge forms (from biology to economics to linguistics) in the form of analogies organized in a temporal series.6 In contrast to the layering of differences that Superflat art is based on, the ground of modern history is accordingly more typically thought of as generally homogenous (despite some unevenness). History therefore holds out the promise of a view of a kind of totality—a view of a whole. But at the same time, the argument usually goes, modern history is self-referential: ultimately, we can really fully see and know only ourselves, and this view is immanent, without a transcendent position—and so we end up alienated from any view of a complete whole. More simply put, there is no overarching view of history possible. The world itself, as a horizon, therefore cannot become a theme—we...


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