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Critical Review

Time Bokan is a collection of three prints, each of which depicts a mushroom cloud in the shape of a skull. The skull is set against a bold backdrop which changes with each print iteration. The prints were all produced in 2006 and come in a pink, black and red version.

The title of the collection and subject of the prints refers to the popular Japanese anime series, Time Bokan. The series first aired in 1975 and a new anime adaption called Time Bokan 24 was released in 2016. The artworks refer to the way each episode of the anime series used to end. When enemies were defeated, they would explode into an anatomic cloud in the shape of a skull. Murakami adds his personal touch to this skull design, replacing the skull’s eyes with garlands of smiling daisies. Smiling flowers are a recurrent visual motif that frequently appear in Murakami’s artworks, identifiable by their bright colours and emoji-like faces.

The works also reference the horrific atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II. Murakami is a vocal critic of contemporary Japanese artists who he believes ignore the horrors of World War II and the state it left Japan in. As is seen in this collection, Murakami’s artworks often comment on the post-war Japanese psyche which was traumatised by the war.

Why is the Time Bokan collection so important?

Despite being considered part of Japan’s ‘low’ culture, Murakami is a long-time fan of anime and manga (Japanese cartoons and comics) and his artistic style is deeply influenced by this style of drawing. Murakami also incorporates elements of ‘otaku’ culture, a subculture associated with computers and nerds, as well as ‘kawaii’ culture, the culture of cuteness. Inspired by ‘low’ and popular culture, Murakami blends ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in his artworks and elevates popular subjects to the realm of fine art.

Murakami’s artistic style is particularly interesting due to his classical art training. The artist studied ‘nihonga’, a traditional Japanese painting style, at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. After finishing his BA, Murakami also went on to do a Master’s and PhD, specialising in the traditional art form. Disillusioned with the fine art world, Murakami spent a year in New York in 1994, where he was exposed to contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer and it was here that he began to experiment with more contemporary artistic styles and the incorporation of popular culture into his work. The result was a style that fuses influences from the East and West, as well as traditional and contemporary techniques.

Murakami’s distinctive style is often described using the term ‘superflat’. The artist coined this term himself in 2000 when he published his superflat theory in the catalogue for a group exhibition that he curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. According to Murakami’s theory, there is a legacy of flat, two-dimensional imagery from Japanese art history in manga and anime. This style contrasts with the way Western art strives to create texture and depth by experimenting with planes of colour and materials. In addition to describing the aesthetics of artworks, Murakami also uses this term to address the nature of post-war Japanese culture and society. Murakami identifies how differences in social classes and popular taste have flattened, diminishing the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. A feature of the superflat style, which is seen in this collection, is the way in which symbols of ‘high’ culture are rendered in a popular style associated with ‘low’ culture, which has the effect of flattening together what is considered ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the same work. In the Time Bokan collection, Murakami takes an image from popular culture and adapts it using his superflat aesthetic in order to comment on post-war Japan. Behind the veneer of simplicity, this collection is complex and thought provoking.

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