“What is free expression?” “What is Japan?” “What is the nature of the period I live in?” These are all questions that acclaimed Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami says he asks himself when he creates ‘superflat’ art. To grasp the concept of superflatness, I use an example given by Murakami himself: In his “Super Flat Manifesto,” Murakami compares ideological and stylistic superflatness to the mechanism of “fusing layers into one” in a computer program. I took a screenshot of the work area in Adobe Photoshop because this is how I most relate to the idea. Anyone who uses Photoshop knows images can have dozens if not hundreds of layers that are compressed onto one two-dimensional surface when they are presented as .gifs or .jpegs or .pngs. Once compression occurs after the file is saved in something other than .psd format, the layers are no longer mutable or movable. Their presence and density can only then be observed in the size of the compressed file, which is large when there are a lot of layers, or in the evident construction of the image by the discerning eye of a skilled Photoshop user.


Culture clashes in superflat art, in a way I actually find somewhat confusing. For starters, Murakami claims that the West loves three-dimensionality—a believable statement given our obsession with photo-realism, and our tendency to deride 2D art as crude or juvenile—while the East prefers two-dimensionality. He says that superflatness, which even as a word alludes to what it means for animation, is “Japanese culture as a worldview.” At the same time, though, he says that superflatness represents “Japanese who have been completely Westernized” in their hypermediate submission to media and shallow consumption. Is superflatness Japanese or Western? My best guess, and what some readings suggest, is that it is a hybrid founded on Japanese response to Western ideals that have infiltrated Japanese culture. (It sounds rather cyclical.) This makes more sense when we see that Louis Vuitton and Murakami have successfully collaborated in designing merchandise (much to the chagrin of fellow artists like Eugenio Merino).



Having just finished the excellent anime series Death Note, I was especially intrigued by discussion of the prevalence of apocalyptic themes in anime and how that too speaks to superflatness. In “Superflat Eschatology” Broderick states that the vision of the apocalypse in anime draws on both Western and Japanese concepts. Apocalypse in Greek and therefore in the Bible means “revelation” or “lifting of the veil,” but most often in the West it has simply come to mean total destruction or the end of the world. But because Japanese society (despite its secularism) is still highly influenced by Shinto, Confucian and Buddhist ideals that deal heavily with rebirth and regeneration, Japan oddly enough—more than the Christian West—is more accurate in its depictions of the apocalypse as equal parts destruction and rebirth. Superflat media forms in Japan show this.

An all-time great anime series, Death Note is famously superflat, mixing overt Christianity with elements of traditional Japanese culture. The main character is a killer who wants to purge the world of evil and be its new god: an example of Broderick’s mappo, or the “continuity or salvation of an elect … as in Western tradition” when it comes to the apocalypse. Death Note’s opening superimposed the main characters onto hyper-Christian art (images below). But the series also hinges on the existence of shinigami, mythic Japanese gods of death that of course have no place in a Christian monotheistic schema. Moreover, one rule in the Death Note universe holds that “the human who uses” a death note—a supernatural book that effects the death of anyone whose name is written in it—“can neither go to Heaven nor Hell”; but a later rule contradicts this one, or at least renders it irrelevant, by declaring that all dead humans go to “MU”—a Buddhist or ‘Zen’ term for nothingness. Furthermore, while in Christianity apples symbolize sinful and knowledgeable attempts to gain godliness, in China they represent peace and beauty. These intersections of Western and Japanese religious ideology make Death Note a great example of superflat anime.


Murakami, Vuitton, Anime, Superflat



Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai: Two Takes on African-American and Japanese Culture

As a child growing up in Asia, I was one of countless children in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China and parts of southeast Asia to come home to the television everyday after school and watch our favorite anime—of course, dubbed into our own native languages. Like many others I have continued to consume anime and manga as I grew older. Two anime series I watched between the age of 18 to 19, which are targeted towards a more mature audience are Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai. While both series feature an interesting hybrid of the traditional Japanese culture concept of “samurai” with the American creation of “hip-hop”, the results are strikingly different as they were targeted towards different audiences. Above all, these two series highlight not only the profound impact Japanese visual culture had on children in East Asia, but also (as anime fever spread to the West), the American continent and Europe. Furthermore, it also shows how while many perceive Japanese visual culture to be inherently “Japanese” and “home-grown”, many of the themes, topics and pop-culture references explored by it refer to Western culture, demonstrating how in the 21st century, with the advent of the Internet, international and inter-cultural hybridity is unavoidable in every aspect of our daily lives of media consumption.

Samurai Champloo was first aired in Japan from 2004 to 2005 and was directed by famed anime series creator Shinichiro Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop fame). Using Edo Japan as the setting, Watanabe heavily refers to hip-hop culture throughout this movie, such as the character design for one of the main protagonists Mugen (see image below), use of rapping, rogue bandits behaving and speaking like “gangstas”, and the use of record scratches in replace of censorship bleeping. Most notably, the soundtrack of the anime heavily leans towards R&B and hip-hop and was produced jointly by Japanese hip-hop producer Nujabes and American Fat Jon (the lyrics of the opening song is in English, rapped by Japanese-American Shing02). He then further adds cultures of Okinawa, modern-day Japan and chanbara (roughly equating to Western swashbuckling films), resulting in an extremely hybridized anime series. Appropriately, the word “champloo” is actually a created word and is derived from the Okinawan word “chanpuru”, meaning “to mix “ or “to hash”.
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The title character of Samurai Champloo, Mugen
The title character of Samurai Champloo, Mugen

In contrast to Champloo is Afro Samurai. Interestingly, although the series was also produced in Japan; it originated from a manga created by a Japanese artist, but the anime series was later created only in English and was premiered to American viewers on Spike TV in January 2007, four months before it aired in Japan (in English). Only five episodes, the series was a collaboration between Japan’s Gonzo Studio, the original “mangaka” (comic artist) and Samuel L. Jackson, who voiced Afro Samurai, and features a music score by RZA from Wu-Tang Clan. In terms of basic historical references and visual style, Afro is similar to Champloo in its heavy references to hip-hop and “gangsta” culture as understood from a Japanese perspective, but features far more explicit themes and more violent imagery. Interesting to me is how a same subject with similar references can create such different end products, and which are in a way catered toward a difference audience. Both series also support Darling’s observation that while some think of manga and anime as “a vulgar or low class media which undermines education, public morality and national intelligence”, it is also instrumental in bringing into Japan foreign cultures and progressive social concepts while remaining a home-grown modern Japanese culture; similarly, anime and manga is one of Japan’s greater cultural policy tools, and as much as some native Japanese hate to admit it, anime and manga plays a huge role in saving Japan from cultural irrelevance despite its declining political and economic power on the world stage since the early 1990s.

Afro Samurai. Note the physical and stylistic similarities between the two characters.
Afro Samurai. Note the physical and stylistic similarities between the two characters.



Yvonne Junya Yuan
Every time somebody mentioned anime, I always associate it with the dreamlike and aesthetical scenes. The function of scene in anime is more than building and rendering the settings and atmosphere the story requires, but also the leading character in another sense.
The beauty of nature
Grown up in the limited scope of geographical environment and the mild climate, Japanese people formed the moderate and sensitive personality. In the mind of Japanese, the highest level of aesthetic value can only achieve when humankind and nature co-exist in harmony. They worship nature, value life and strive for ingenious and exquisite beauty. Therefore, the flowers, trees, stones and waters are absolutely indispensable in anime scenes. The quiet and secluded scenarios often get plenty screen time, portraying the most ordinary corner of everyday life. With an eye to the subtleties and nuances of life, the creators pursue the “Integration of Men and Nature” in a seemingly careless way. There is seldom appearance of magnificent spectacles in anime or manga, the style is more inclined to discover the neglected beauty hidden in the inconspicuous spot. Dancing petals, falling leaves as well as lonely branch are typical artistic expression. Take Five Centimeters Per Second directed and graphed by Makoto Shinkai as an example, the beginning image of this movie is the dancing shadow of the cherry trees in the puddles of water, followed by three close-up shots depicting a street in different angles - the wire netting bathed in the golden rays of the morning sun, the electric motor car which is leaning by the cherry tree and the corner formed by a microbus and the wall. The frame is so delicately made that the shadows of the cherry blossoms on the motor car are carefully drawn, serving as the leading role of the scene. The spreading ripples, whirling sakura pedals, and shimmering light and shadows constitute the whole street. Just like the first love described in the movie died without sickness, all these sights are aware, which the Japanese use for the feelings that arise from the poignant beauty of an ephemeral thing. Additionally, in terms of the modeling of landscape, Japanese people seek to retain the beauty of incompleteness. They believe that only by cherishing flaws and regret will make them remember the fine and vagaries of perfection. Consequently, balanced model rarely appears. Instead, by combining different-directed sceneries, a dynamic static sensation is obtained, and rich of layers.

The beauty of light and shadowA little change in the angle or the color of the light and shadow effect will make a big difference of audiences’ visual impression as well as the dramatic effect. The depiction of light and shadow should not only conform to the law of nature, but also correspond with the character’s emotions. The anime accentuates the highlight, the glare of the sun and the alteration of the shadow color. The relationship between light and shadow is no longer simply white and black, but also obscurity and permeability of the image quality. In Five Centimeters Per Second,black lighting has been used in large amounts to create an intense conflict between light and shadow. Those elongated shade of windows in the classroom; the flowing shadows of the pillars in the tram and the mottled shadow of the cherry blossoms on the road are all examples. These phenomena are easy to miss in our daily life, but when presented in the anime, they intensify the rise and fall of the feelings. In a word, the light and shadow in anime are alive, besides expressing the space and volume, they are carrying on the flow of time and life. 5.png7.png6.png
The beauty of elegant colors

From the traditional Japanese aesthetic perspective, plain is advocated. However, affected by the western painting theory and the development of computer technique, the color of scene is shifting toward a more diversified style. The tone is no longer monotonous and dull. It turns to be more impressionistic style just like watercolor. The color selection is mainly subjective to the creator’s intention to flow with the plot, strengthening the affections. As can be seen in one of the Animatrix's episode-Program, the sky is in bloody red, with a giant white moon in contrast with the black roof. I'm very impressive with the fighting scenario, and with the woeful story, it looks like that the male character's blood dyed the whole sky.


Shinkai extends the innate possibilities of the anime dynamic, reapplying its principles of lush effects, inflated background detail and sometimes undernourished character animation to mirror the interiority of the characters in every nuance of their surroundings."
– Ronnie Scheib from [[/wiki/Variety_(magazine)|Variety]][8[[home#cite_note-Variety-7|]]]

The gradual color is also very common in anime. By adding more layers of colors, the graduation avoids sharp contrast and creates the softness and harmony of the scene. The most frequent use of graduation is when drawing the sky. Regarding the strategy for successful color combination, the Japanese anime creators have used the experiences of the Johanners Itten's Seven Color Contrasts Theory-Contrast of saturation, light and dark, extension, complements, hue, warm and cool and simultaneous contrast.

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Jen Lennon

Murakami’s notion of the superflat is an intriguing concept that helped me, a novice to the world of manga and anime, understand more about the Japanese culture and how art has evolved in Japan, especially from the end of World War II to now. However, the idea behind Superflat is one that we’ve been considering all semester. Superflat refers to the hybridity of Japanese art and how multiple dimensions, genres and mediums have been compressed to one mixed up and referential type of art. However, Murakami’s version of hybridity also invokes the more literal definition of “flat” by including the two-dimensional art forms of manga and anime as huge references for his art, and posits that all Japanese art and culture includes manga and anime due to the rich history of these two art forms in Japanese culture.

However, I’d mostly like to expand on Lin’s comparisons on Warhol and Murakami. At first the art works referred to in the readings seemed pretty obviously similar to Warhol’s pop art movement with the bright colors, the pop culture references and celebrity collaborations. But a few critiques offered a really interesting insight into how Warhol and Murakami differed, which is that Murakami figured out how to really monetize and commodify his work, where Warhol was more concerned with the high art world. Warhol wanted to bring low culture to the high art world. He mixed and appropriated, but it was all as sort of a statement or joke on the pretentious New York City art scene, which eventually embraced his work and praised it at the standard he was remixing. Murakami, however, seems much less interested in the art world so much as in culture itself. He even once explained that his process was "more about creating goods and selling them than about exhibitions."

Murakami collaborated with a line with Louis Vuitton, the popular French fashion label, and his collection became one the highest selling models. He makes T-shirts, mouse pads and key chains. He caters to a wide audience by allowing everyone to essentially buy a piece of his art. If you can’t afford the Vuitton bag, then pick up the key chain. Though Warhol and Murakami had similar childhood dreams of breaking out of where they came and becoming wealthy, Murakami approaches it much more as a businessman. His factory isn’t a salon of artists and performance and creativity. His factory is filled with publicists, accountants and managers.

Murakami also has his eye on the future and continues to find new and interesting ways to remix the art that he produces with interesting outlets and ways to reach both consumers and fans. Take, for example, his recent QR code design made in collaboration with Louis Vuitton to showcase their line. While it essentially takes you to a marketplace to buy the products, the image itself is art.

Murakami is seemingly interested in celebrity as was Warhol. Here is a video he made with Kirsten Dunst and American director McG, who was responsible for the resurgence of Charlie’s Angels. This shows more of his notion of superflat, not in the two-dimensional sense, but in the sense that Japanese culture mixes with western influence.

MommoHD - Kirsten Dunst-Takashi Murakami


Lin Lu

As a crazy fan of Japanese manga and anime, I have done at least the following three things: 1) watched series of anime regularly while eating lunch and dinner for 10 years, 2) bought at least 45 series of comic books for creating a small collection myself, and 3) obsessed by cartoon related products. Was I doing meaningless in my childhood? Honestly, I never had an answer, However, Takashi Murakami gave the answer and he said the meaning of the nonsense of the meaning.

Before reading this week’s materials, I only knew that Murakami designed a line for Louis Vuitton and reasons that knew nothing about history of anime or Murakami’s impacts on amine and manga. And now, I would say Murakami can be deemed as an Asian Andy Warhol in spreading contemporary Japanese cultures to both the Asians and Westerns. Before comparing Murakami’s work to Warhol’s, it is necessary to analyze Murakami and his grown up environment. Reasons that Murakami’s trademark Superflat style and “Poku” are widely recognized are rooted in Japanese Otaku cultures and western influence on Japan after WWII.

Typically, Murakami is an Otaku even the word of Otaku has been seemed as a negative connotation of people with a meaningless obsession towards something useless. The meaning behind Murakami’s Superflat movement is based on otaku culture. As Chiho Aoshima pointed out, “superflat” movement is “a term coined by contemporary Japanese artist Takahashi Murakami to describe the simplified and emphatically two-dimensional forms that have become the staple of a hip new visual language employed by young Japanese artists”. For instance, most subjects of Murakami’s work are animated and still cartoon characters and styles. More than that, he has embraced otaku culture–the Japanese version of computer geeks who retreat into the fantasy realm of cartoons for entertainment and even sexual fulfillment.

The development of Murakami’s artwork is hybrid, which enables him to blur the boundaries between fine arts and pop arts in contemporary Japan. The Western influence on Japan has been enhanced since Meiji period and it became more significant after the atomic bomb attack. Murakami used to be a traditional Japanese artists painting images on vintage shikishi paper, however, he started to work with Western ones, such as polyester sculpting and computer generated images. Influenced that Murakami had had were hybrid as well. For instance, Murakami’s inspiration and work was influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s animated films were popular in Japan, of which themes were dedicated to explore humanity’s relationships to modernization and technology as well as the idea of pacificism after WWII. Both Miyazaki’s and Murakami’s works are aesthetically pleasing and kawaii. Characters of the Superflat movement and characters of Miyazaki’s animations share some commons including colorful and attract attention. Moreover, Murakami’s work was inspired by the Westerns, especially Damien Hirst. For instance, Murakami’s dynamic of the installation –including its setup and its detail was inspired by Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Peculiar monsters of Murakami’s artwork were inspired by Jeff Koons and J.J. Abrams.

The Superflat movement is a controversial art revival of Japanese art. Murakami used two-dimensional and three-dimensional characters to demonstrate how he perceived social crisis in Japan.

Compared Murakami to Warhol, we might discover that they have something similar. First, both of them tend to use bright colors and figural images. Second, both of them used traditional artistic style at the beginning and changed to adopt newer medium later. Third, both of the face criticism that there is no meaning behind their work and appropriation can be found in most of their work. Fourth, both of them become well known figures in commercial worlds and blur boundaries between high value and low value.


Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff
Ghost in a Shell: some observations on watching my first Anime

Ghost in a Shell, the 1995 anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii is most definitely a node in the dialogical network. It draws on the 1989 manga by the same name, and borrows and quotes from the visual standards of the science fiction genre and the cyberpunk subgenre. In turn, the list of creative works that it influence, that use its tropes and quote from its visual world seems endless. In addition to the numerous sequels, tv series, video games that are part of the “Ghost in a Shell” franchise, you can see its influence on films of other sci-fi worlds. From the first few moments of the film, I could see its relationship to The Matrix. To name just three examples that jumped out at me: there are shots that flash up of matricies of green numbers clicking by. Also the part-cyborg, part-human characters of Ghost in a Shell plug in using ports in the back of their necks, placed almost exactly like the ports later portrayed on the backs of the necks of the characters in The Matrix. Finally there is the shot of the tough, sexy, female protagonist, in leather boots, feet planted in an assured stance, standing on a rooftop looking down to the ant-sized figures on the street below, determining her plan. (Although in the Ghost in a Shell case, the protagonist is naked except for her boots; The Matrix makers put clothes on their woman –perhaps because of the difference in acceptability between nude animated figures and nude real actors.)
Matrix of numbers from Ghost in a Shell
Matrix of numbers from Ghost in a Shell
Matrix of symbols in The Matrix
Matrix of symbols in The Matrix

On the roof in Ghost in a Shell
On the roof in Ghost in a Shell
On the Roof in The Matrix
On the Roof in The Matrix

As I was searching the internet for good images to illustrate the connections between Ghost in a Shell and The Matrix, I came across a website that is titled, “Ghost in a Shell, The Matrix a Scene by Scene Comparison”. Maybe I should not be surprised that this analysis had been done thoroughly, (and freely) by someone before me, and put up on the web, since this is another feature, a specifically twenty-first century feature, of our inter-textual culture.

It also struck me as I watched this film how much of the visual language of live action film in its use of camera angles and visual tricks, such as showing a scene as if through a security camera. It is not necessary for animation to work this way; the filmmakers could have chosen a whole range of visual language. But they recognize that their audience has a deep, ingrained understanding of the tropes of life-action film and they can use this language to their advantage to evoke the emotions and ideas that viewers associate subconsciously with specific film imagery.
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Part of the identity of the anime genre is the simplified, non-realistic animation style. For example, when the characters speak, their mouths move in a very basic, jerky open-close-open-close motion. I’m sure that lots of meaning can be interpreted from this style, but what it brought up in me as I watched Ghost in a Shell, was that the simplified animation kept the genre distinct from the Disney-Pixar type animation films being created and disseminated out of the US. There is mutual influence between anime and Disney-Pixar, but it seems like part of their response to the other side is to react against the style it epitomizes.

In many ways, this film represents a genre in which my cultural literacy is very weak, almost non-existent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “cyberpunk” film before, or an anime film the entire way through. So I was surprised that as I watched this film with an eye to its inter-textuality, there was a lot that even I could notice and analyze. Without the Wikipedia article about it however, I wouldn’t have come to the fascinating conclusion that this film is better classified as “Postcyberpunk”. To quote: “typical postcyberpunk stories continue the focus on a ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information and cybernetic augmentation of the human body, but without the assumption of dystopia”. This description reminded me of what we’ve described as “Post-postmodernism”; artists who take the remix/mash-up assumptions developed in postmodernism for granted and tell new stories with these assumptions. “Postcypberpunk” takes the computerized worlds established in classic cyberpunk as a given, and builds stories in these worlds that can go a step further.

One final observation: There are standards and codes of gender evident in the manga/anime genre that I find very interesting. We often tend to think of gender as a natural division, when in fact our definitions of the genders is utterly full of dialogic quotations from previous gender definitions, and previous cultural creations targeted toward a specific gender. According to Wikipedia, manga stories generally divide into Shojo manga for girls and Shonen manga for boys. Ghost in a Shell seemed to quote from (subconscious and conscious) expectations about films geared toward boys. For example the characters were mostly men, with the necessary exception of one of the major protagonists being a woman. Also, the fighting was classically explosive and gun-dominated. It just makes me think that if I were a Manga writer or Anime director, I would feel motivated to deliberately try to mix the expectations from Shojo and Shonen, and create a work that reacts against this division.