A Marriage of Trauma and Kitsch
by Eleanor Heartney
The exhibition "Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture," seen earlier this year at New York's Japan Society, evoked contradictory responses. On one hand, it was among the most exciting and thought-provoking shows of the season. In an art world inured to cultural tourism, national origin often seems little more than a colorful doodad attached to works that speak an otherwise deeply familiar international Esperanto. "Little Boy," by contrast, offered something new, fresh and (it would appear) culturally authentic. (This may seem like an odd thing to say about works that borrow heavily from the strategies and styles of American pop culture, but hopefully that paradox will be explained below.)
On the other hand, the show also exposed an unhealthy pathology. What it said about contemporary Japan, about international youth culture, and about the melding of art and entertainment was, ultimately, deeply disturbing. The paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, animated films and commercial tchotchkes on view were strange marriages of trauma and kitsch, making references to nuclear nightmares, prepubescent sexual fantasies, the triumph of consumer capitalism, and the seamless blending of entertainment and marketing. These contradictory themes were fleshed out in apparently puerile styles that ranged emotionally from cloying sentimentality to an adolescent delight in graphic destruction.
Among the highlights of the show were a number of vitrines showcasing the nauseatingly cute characters, logos and winsome toys that shape the self-images of many Japanese consumers. These offered a contrast to another strain of Japanese culture explored by the show, the inventive mayhem of animated cartoons and horror films that often end (or sometimes begin) with various forms of nuclear holocaust. Viewers also encountered full-scale and toy-size models of space pods, radiation suits and futuristic robots hailing from a completely militarized future; Dargeresque drawings of schoolgirls that mingle childlike innocence with provocative eroticism; big-eyed children with weirdly blank expressions who wield terrifying weapons; a huge, toylike elephant that sports decal-covered diapers; and a skull-shaped mushroom cloud that provides the sign-off for a popular Japanese children's cartoon show.
It is tempting to relate the art and artifacts gathered in "Little Boy" to aspects of contemporary American art. The catalogue frequently refers to the work on view as "neo Pop," suggesting a relationship to Warhol and his celebration of celebrity, immersion in consumer culture and appropriation of images and objects of popular culture. Connections could also be made to the abject art of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, the ingratiating kitsch of Jeff Koons, the goth flirtations of Banks Violette and Sue de Beer, and the widespread fascination among young American artists with B-movie genres like horror, sci-fi and porn, as well as the continuing appeal of the apocalyptic fantasies delivered to mass culture through characters like the Terminator and mainstream films such as Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
But to simply assimilate this work to Western models would be to miss the Japaneseness of it all. "Little Boy" brings us news of otaku, a Japanese subculture defined here as the province of the obsessive fan or collector of Japanese animation films (anime). According to the show's curator, Takashi Murakami, himself an otaku-inspired artist, otaku (the term can refer to the subculture as well as to its individual members) are officially reviled in work-obsessed Japan as deviant dropouts, yet their obsessions are shared by a huge portion of the population. American counterparts might be skateboarding culture, perhaps, or goth, or even the world of Trekkies, who, like otaku, hold conventions and act out the roles of their favorite characters. One big difference seems to be the reception of these subcultures. While the American versions often remain marginalized from the larger society, some otaku are as celebrated as rock stars, and worshipped by hordes of young female fans.
Many of the objects in "Little Boy" (art and nonart alike) grew out of otaku. The essays in the show's illuminating catalogue encourage an almost Freudian reading of this material, stressing its role in the return of the politically and socially repressed. As pictured here, contemporary Japanese culture has been shaped by a series of shattering events that have not been properly assimilated into the national psyche. These include the horrific nuclear conflagrations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the humiliating military surrender, the subsequent submission to the occupier's demands that Japan permanently renounce aggression and militant nationalism and, more recently, the bursting of the 1980s economic bubble and the long, gray aftermath that followed. These are seen as ingredients in the evolution of a strangely infantilized society where salarymen read comic books (manga) in the subway on their way to work, schoolgirls go on "compensated dates" (elsewhere known as prostitution) to pay for designer accessories, and regional governments represent themselves with cuddly cartoon characters. Other symptoms of national unease include the 1995 Aura Shinrikyo sarin attack (cult members had ties to otaku), as well as a skyrocketing suicide rate among Japanese youth and the refusal of many of the country's young people to join the corporate culture.