Superflat Adds Complex Layers of Meaning to the “Flattened Surface”

Ai-Ling Wu


My final paper will study the Superflat art movement which is a node in the network of Japan’s culture, economy, social changes and art interaction with artists around the world. I will focus on artworks and idea of Takashi Murakami, the founder of Superflat while comparing it to other Superflat artists such as Chiho Aoshima, Yoshitomo Nara and Aya Takano, etc. Superflat, a term coined by artist Takashi Murakami to denote his anime-inspired style of art, is used by other artists in Asia and abroad. Combining the flatness of commercial graphic design and the hyper-sexualised cartoon characters of Japanese comics with the aesthetic concerns of fine art, Superflat’s influence is wide-sweeping. The symbolic and capital consumption of Edo is my research method to analyze the relationship and dialogues among different Superflat artists. Besides, the paper will apply the institutional and social network to discuss how Murakami and Superflat art movement interact with western art world and consumerism.


Japanese artist Takashi Murakami first organised an exhibition for PARCO department store museums in Tokyo and Nagoya in 2000, he coined the term “Superflat.” Murakami’s new term described a specific type of Japanese contemporary art that compressed, or “flattened”, various types of graphic design, fine arts and pop culture (Hunter, 2001). The Superflat Manifesto from Murakami Takashi can further illustrate the concept of the Superfalt art movement, “The world of the future might be like Japan is today – Superflat. Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional. It is particularly apparent in the arts that this sensibility has been flowing steadily beneath the surface of Japanese history. Today, the sensibility is most present in Japanese games and anime, which have become powerful parts of world culture.”

What is Superflat? Anime, manga and fine art

Combining a Pop aesthetic with the Japanese kawaii (cute) culture, Superflat overtly references the flatness and two-dimensionality of Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comics). While much of the work in “Superflat” trades on the tensions build onto adolescent sexuality by either sublimation (for example, Nara’s children) or heightening eroticism to the point of the ridiculous (as in Murakamai’s My Lonesome Cowboy), there is little of the violent pornography that characterizes much of the manga being produced outside of the brackets of fine art. Murakami also combined the traditional Japanese art into Superflat. He claimed “much of the work on display is the result of an evolutionary process of formal and spatial reduction that fins its roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century Ukiyo-e prints, such as Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji’” (Cooper, 2001). On one hand, Superflat critiques and oppose the pedagogical hegemony of Western aesthetics, with its emphasis on Renaissance perspectival space, in modern Japanese art education (Cooper, 2001). On the other hand, Murakami has integrated the language of the Abstract Expressionism in many of his paintings, working below the surface, giving it new depth (Gioni, 2012). Superflat as a movement also concerned with mass consumerism and dissemination. It conceals a double meaning: according to Hunter Drohojowska-Philp who is an art critic,  Superflat also stood for “the shallow emptiness of […] consumer culture.”

Takashi Murakami, ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm.

WWII influence on Superflat

The artist combined this tradition of two-dimensionality with his youthful preoccupation with the bombings of Japan during the Second World War. Murakami states that the relationship between war and art is a predominant concern in his work (Awad, 2014). Second World War is a crucial framing device in Superflat. It has great influence on Japanses culture since it is a chronological moment for a fracture between young and old (Cooper, 2001).

Flower Superflat, a famous example of Superflat art by Murakami, which shows that Japan is becoming a nation like all the others. Represented in the identical flowers, Japan is slowly becoming an indistinguishable flower in a bouquet, losing all the colors and qualities that made her unique, thus losing her individuality. The consumer culture and lack of traditional values and morals does not make Japan stand out from the other countries anymore. The country is becoming “super flat.”


Takashi Murakami, Flower Superflat, 2004, Lithograph, 68.4×68.4cm. 

Who are Japan’s Superflat artists?

The group exhibition “Superflat,” held at MoCA Gallery, California, in 2001 included the following Japanese artists, designers, and cartoonists who either influenced or became known as Superflat artists: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshima and Aya Takano.

In addition, Murakami runs Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd, an art production company promoting the movement. In Tokyo, he has started a twice- yearly art fair called GESAI  that seeks to foster up and coming talent in Japan. Their work is not limited to paintings or digital prints. For instance, Chiho Aoshima’s work has lent itself to mural design. Her work can be seen on the walls of the 14th Street-Union Square subway station in New York City, and on display in the Gloucester Road Tube Station in London.


Chiho Aoshima, City Glow

Research questions

•What are the dialogues among Superflat artists? What characteristics do they share in common? What differentiates them?

•How does Superflat interact with the western art world and consumerism in the institutional and social network?

Symbolic and Capital Value of Edo in Superflat

Edo is a critical element in the works of Superflat artists such as Murakami Takashima and Nara Yoshimoto. Superflat artists consumed the semiotic value of Edo when they create artistic works. For example, Murakami links contemporary anime and manga-influence art to the works of Edo-period artists Kano Sansetsua and Katsushika Hokusai. Nara applies ukiyo-e art form in the Edo period into his drawings. The paper will use semiotic consumption of Edo to analyze the dialogues among different Superflat artists.

What is Edo?

There was an Ego boom in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. It caught people’s popular imagination in television, literature, manga and in critical theory. (Steinberg, 2004).

“Edo was the site of the lost-but-not-forgotten authentic Japan, the pre-Western ‘outside’ of modernity. It was also, conversely, the precursor and reflection ofJapan’s consumerist, postmodern present” (Harootunian, 2000). Edo represents Japanese uniqueness and acts like an “outsider” of modernity in Japan. It also can be recognized as the precursor and reflection of Japan’s consumerist and postmodern present (Steinberg, 2004). We can situate Murakami’s exhibition in the phenomenon Edo boom. In its first manifestation in the Parco Galleries of Tokyo and Nagoya (spring and summer 2000), and in its later manifestations at the MOCA in Los Angeles (January to May 2001), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis Quly to October 2001) and the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle (November 2001 to March 2002), the ‘Superflat’ gathered various contemporary Japanese artists, most of whose works have some relation to contemporary mass culture-whether in the form of fashion, manga (comics), anime (animation), figurines or video games. Besides the connection to the mass culture, these artists showed the flatness and the art form from Edo-period painters, such as Kano Sansetsu and Ito Jakuchia, and woodblock artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (Steinberg, 2004). Superflat as an art movement links the past with the present with the future.

Nara and Murakami’s Comsumption of Edo

Nara Yoshimoto is a contemporary of Takashi Murakami within Japan’s Neo-Pop and Superflat movement, having been influenced by popular culture from both the East and West. In fact, in terms of their age and popularity, Nara and Murakami are more like partners than mere contemporaries. They had discussion at conference and created a website together and sell both individual and their collaborative merchandise in the Narakami General Store (Steinberg, 2004). However, regarding the relation between the art and Japan, Nara differs from Murakami considerably. Nara claims that his works are influenced more by children’s book worldwide than the anime, manga or hihonga (Japanese traditional painting) while Murakami maintains a cozy relationship with the concept of a Japanese aesthetics. According to Nara, his work depict the universal childhood that cannot be recuperated by either nation or culture. “So for me. Western and Eastern Art Histories are no more than relics of the past. We probably need some other name for what is now ongoing in the world. For my own works too, it would seen incomplete to represent on in the context of Japan and Asia, but of course they cannot be discussed in terms of the West either” (Nara, 2000).

Nara is renowned for the punk-kid figure with oversized heads and glaring eyes in his paintings. These figures sometimes are grimacing, bloody or threatening which are filled with sadness and anger. Another characteristic of Nara’s work is emphsizing on figure and rejection of background. The characteristic is derived from the ukiyo-e print which is the representative art form of the Edo period. The paper will discuss how Nara composite Edo in the Slash with a Knife in his book Ukiyo (published in 1999) by erasing any complexity, dimensionality or depth present in the original work work Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Great Wave) from the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji collection by Hokusai.


Nara Yoshitomo Slash with a Knife, courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.


Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), c. 1830-32, polychrome woodblock print;

Nara erases depth by painting over the original painting with white paint and by integrating his figures into the original ukiyo-e. He paints over the creases in the waves and the distant Mount Fuji with white and turns the giant wave in the foreground in the foreground into the hair of a knife-wielding figure. Nara blurs the fine lines and the blocks of color that create a sense of spatial depth in the original work. He paints his punk figures on an uneven, splotchy yet uniplanar surface. He transforms the elements of Edo that attracts him into his own artistic work. This composition has been done through picking out elements from Edo database or Japanese cultural encyclopedia. “What animated Nara’s work on the prints is a logic of consumption of database, a logic that can be re-articulated in terms of the visual logic or operation of compositing” (Steinberg, 2004).

This consumption of Edo elements also appears in Murakami’s work Mt. Fuji and Manji Fuji. In this painting, two Murakami’s cartoon characters stand on the tree with the outline of Mount Fuji in the background. The Mount Fuji and the tree are drawn in a traditional style while the characters and the top-left writing are composed in color and a digital style that is contemporary and distinctively Murakami. Although there are two different styles in this painting, they are not conflicting. Murakami avoided the dimensions among different objects in his painting but added more complexity to the layers of the contemporary and the traditional. As in Nara’s works, the characters are not simply positioned on top of the original works but are drawn into it.


Murakami Takashi Manji Fuji © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd/All rights reserved.

Both of the cases from Nara and Murakami consume the symbolic value of Edo. They select different elements from Edo database and create a new work by remediation. Nara and Murakami are not drawing Edo into their present but rather is drawing their present through Edo. The capital value of Edo can be displayed in the nationalistic appeal to Japanese tradition , or a unique Japanese sensibility, which is a marketing strategy, a selling point. The consumption of Edo database can be an effective strategy when artistic works are promoted in the international art market.

Superflat’s Interaction with Western Art World and Consumerism

The development of Superflat has a strong relationship with the pop art movement in western art world.  Murakami said, “I could not survive in Japan, so that’s why I first had to move to New York — the capital of the art market and of the art everything. Things turned out well, I was lucky, and ever since I have been trying to learn how to exist within the market and the museum and the critical industry. I am still trying to learn how they operate” (Gioni, 2012). The mass consumerism theme in Superflat is the central part of the Pop Art in the late 1950s and 1960s. The “Pop” was the most prominent style in America. The imagery of Pop Art was derived from commercial source, the mass media and everyday life. “In contrast to Abstract Expressionism—which viewed works of art as revelations of the artist’s inner, unconscious mind—the Pop artists strove for “objectivity” embodied by an imagery of objects” (Adams, 2011). Andy Warhol was the leading artist in the Pop Art movement. He turned himself into a work of Pop Art and became the central figure of a controversial cult with his flair for multimedia events and self promotion. Takashi Murakami is generally regarded as the “Japanese Andy Worhol” by thinking flat, championing mass media, breaking the boundaries between high and low art. Besides, it’s the repetition and interest in merging business and art along the lines of mass production that echoes with Warhol. Warhol would have loved Murakami’s cooperation with Louis Vuitton. However, there are some differences between Murakami and Warhol. In the context of contemporary Japanese art, Murakami demonstrates the mass customization over mass production, and the reincarnation of repetition as a type of uniqueness in art. In other words, Warhol transforms commercial goods into art while Murakami develops his art into a medium in consumerism. A short animated video Superflat Monogram in 2003 which was designed by Murakami for Louis Vuitton and their collaborative campaign can illustrate the relationship between Superflat and consumerism.


Takashi Murakami, ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm.

Murakami’s Superflat campaign for Louis Vuitton did not merely create obsession for the luxury brand’s graphic trademarks with a depthless visual field. It facilitated users to change from consuming to producing. For instance, users created countless Louis Vuitton desktops, wallpapers, screensavers and even the Louis Vuitton Facebook layout. These graphics, like Murakami’s Superflat, takes brand’s colorful monograms as the visual cue for a deliberately flat surface. “Indeed, such a depthless image with over- flowing Louis Vuitton icons, like Murakami’s superflat art, is the ideal format for any screen, from television to computer, from iPhone to iPad, whose ever flattened and enlarging surfaces are saturating our entire visual environment” (Li, 2012).

Superflat Monogram features a multicolor Panda with big staring eyes who guides a Japanese girl to fly in a space filled with LV brand’s multicolor monograms. There is a scene that the Japanese girl who stands in front of a Louis Vuitton store is “swallowed” by the Louis Vuitton Panda. Although this scene seems to suggest the loss of consumers’ identity when they consume luxury goods, the anxiety is dissolved by the subsequent cheerful journey. The girl is lead into a fantasy space flooded with loads of Louis Vuitton monograms. The dreamland of Louis Vuitton is visualized as a Superflat style which is flat and depthless. Although the girl who can symbolize a shopper or a consumer is freed when she fly in the fantasy land, her figure is often “prisoned” on the depthless surface within a certain frame such as a shopping window, a cellphone or a screen. Murakami’s Superflat provides the audience with a cheerful but deeply alarming scenario about our obsession with the “flattened surface”.


The paper analyzes the common point between Takashi Murakami and Nara Yoshimoto is that both of them consume the Edo database and incorporate the symbolic and capital value of Edo into their works. What differentiates Superflat artists is the distance between their works and the style from Japanese traditional art. For instance, Nara asserts that his works can not be appreciated and understood under certain culture. He wants to display the essence of art in his work which can be interpreted across the cultural boundary. Murakami benefits from the ideas of Pop Art in America and learns the operation in the market of western art world. He makes innovation in Superflat by integrating the uniqueness of Japanese art and mass media. It makes the western audience feel freshness and surprise when they are familiar with the Pop Art. After Murakami’s works have been well received by the western art world, he is able to bring the success back to Japan. His cooperation with luxury brand Louis Vuitton helped him accumulate capital to develop Japanese contemporary art and cultivate young artists. Although Superflat critique the superficiality in consumerism, it does not mean that Superflat would not have any collaboration with commercial world or entertainment world. Superflat has power to add complex layers to the flat and shallow commercial world through art works.



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Steinberg, Marc. “Otaku Consumption, Superflat Art and the Return to Edo.” Japan Forum, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 449-471


Murakami Paints Himself Warhol, 2009, Published –

Think Flat: The Art of Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami: Selections from the Freedman Family Collection and the BYU Museum of Art