Murakami X 2
by Roland Kelts
Two newly published books - Art Space Tokyo and A Wild Haruki Chase - feature essays I wrote about men named Murakami.
When the books arrived in my mailbox last week, I considered the apparent coincidence. Takashi Murakami, 45, is the Japanese visual artist whose pop-inspired, mass-produced sculptures and paintings (not to mention gift shop trinkets and branded Luis Vuitton bags) have led critics to brand him an heir to Andy Warhol. Haruki Murakami, 59, is the Japanese author whose sometimes surreal, dreamlike writing has invited comparisons to Franz Kafka, whose posthumously-named 'Franz Kafka Prize' he was awarded in Prague two years ago.
The two Murakamis express themselves through very different arts, and arguably from different ends of a generation gap. But maybe my coincidental essays are not such an accident.
Murakami is a common family name in Japan, of course, and if I'd also written about novelist Ryu in another book out this month, I'd have what hockey aficionados call 'a hat trick' - three goals in a single game. But in this case, both Takashi and Haruki are artists who incorporated American influences into their creative DNA, then actively reached out to, or even courted, American audiences for their work. And both have been wildly successful.
Haruki blends his love of American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler with a sense of urban isolation and loneliness - possibly emanating from Japan's rapid 20th Century industrialization - and obsessions with jazz or cooking or other globally shared, stateless pursuits. His stories often convey a great love for his characters despite and/or because of their imperfections.
Takashi mixes his love of American pop- or kitsch-oriented artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons with his own studies in Japanese Nihonga painting (itself a 19th Century attempt to combine European techniques and Japanese subjects) to explore the universality of character design - particularly of those who, like Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty, transcend cultural boundaries - and a lurking menace and resentment behind a facade of kawaii cuteness.
They share an embrace of American influences and the uncanny ability to reorient them in original Japanese artistic expressions that travel well.
With Takashi, I attempted in Art Space Tokyo (a physically exquisite book, by the way, with gorgeous illustrations, illuminating guides and the heft of hand-crafted elegance) to position the artist and his work within the context of his hometown, Tokyo. Using his theory of "superflat," a reference both to the comparatively two-dimensional visual approach employed by Japanese artists, and to the comparative lack of distinctions in Japan between high and low, aesthetic and commercial, original and imitative, I explore the possibility that the same theory might be applied to the physical and psychological nature of Japan's capital city - which is topographically horizontal, spatially single-planed (especially at night, when its lights flatten blocks and buildings) and hierarchically challenged - with some if its most famous landmarks proudly standing as copies of other cities’ originals.
With Haruki in A Wild Haruki Chase (another handsome book, though for completely different reason - lean and colorful, paperback, with reprints of international Murakami covers and contributions from luminaries like Richard Powers and Jay Rubin), my goal was to discover how Western dualisms (heaven/hell, et cetera) might be losing their relevance in the 21st Century, and to apply this discovery to the relatively more complex and inconclusive nature of the author’s work. Of particular concern is whether Haruki’s books may be misread by some Americans, particular those of an older generation whose paradigms may not apply to the worlds found in his fiction.
Unexpectedly, I landed on another point of synchronicity just days ago. Giving an interview to National Public Radio on Speed Racer, the new Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese anime MahhaGoGoGo, I recounted how another Japanese artist, Tatsuo Yoshida, was quite deliberately aiming for an American audience via television in the 1960s.
According to Ippei Kuri, Yoshida's surviving younger brother, the look of the hero, 'Go' or 'Speed,' was based on Elvis Presley's character in Viva Las Vegas; the gadget-filled car was from James Bond 007; and the familial relations at the heart of the story were culled from numerous American TV shows from the 1950s. But the end result, now celebrated in America, was perceived to be entirely Japanese - anime at its rawest.
Think Toyota, think Nintendo. When Japanese appeal to Americans, and do so with an awareness of American tastes and yearnings, the results can sometimes be spectacular.
By Roland Kelts, Author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, Lecturer at The University of Tokyo and Contributing Editor of A Public Space
JAPANAMERICAN EYES is a special column for Japanese Writers' House Newsletter.
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