Don’t you love the Olympics? That time when the world gathers to celebrate the most impressive athletes out there. For me, sports are the least interesting thing about these events. My interest goes directly to the opening and closing ceremonies of each edition. Yes, I might sound like an old lady right now, but I don’t care. Why do I love these things and religiously watch them live (no matter the time difference) and sometimes re-watch them on the internet? Simple. I love to see the elements each country chooses to portray themselves before the world. Take, for instance, the London 2012 ceremonies. They were the ultimate display of national pride and colonialism. No matter how much I loved them –let’s be honest, they’re in the top of the best ceremonies in history–, it was impossible not to notice these attitudes. But we’ll leave that discussion for another time. The reason why I brought the Olympic ceremonies to the conversation is to talk about culture, specifically, Japanese culture.
Another thing I enjoy about these events is the presentation of the next host. In London’s closing ceremony we got a taste of the festivity and Latin vibe of the Brazilian samba dancers and carnivals. As expected, most of their opening and closing ceremonies were based on them, but when the time came for Japan to make their presentation, it was definitely something I was not expecting. I’m not a professional when it comes to Japanese culture, but I sure was expecting a more folkloric performance based on the Geisha or Samurai traditions. Instead, they presented us a whole world that’s widely popular, with video games and beloved anime characters. They showed us their richness in modern culture and the importance this country has had in terms of technology. Now, you might be wondering what does this has to do with the artistic movement we are talking about. And the answer is the essence of their culture, that shift from traditions to modernity that has made of Japan such a rich country in historical terms.
Now, out of that shift and merging emerged Superflat. Coined by the celebrity artist Takashi Murakami, Superflat consists in the merging of popular culture, especially coming from anime and the Kawaii style, with what is considered high brow art. He belongs to the Neo-pop movement, which merges traditional iconography with modern symbols and styles that belong to the country's pop culture, that is, anime and manga. But what makes Superflat different from Japanese Neo-pop? In my opinion, not much. For instance, the latter was born out of a criticism to the stiffness and close-mindedness of traditional and realistic art. These artists use the main traditional styles and techniques and add elements from popular culture that are transcendental at the time.
As for Superflat, the idea remains basically the same, just that this time, the art is based on a critique to the country's consumerism. We can see this, for instance, in Murakami’s take on the Louis Vuitton brand, juxtaposed with cartoons or other characters belonging to Japanese pop culture. The "flat" side of this movement comes from the shallowness and emptiness that has dominated the visual scenery. However, just as the artist has stated, all his art comes from his fascination with these products since his adolescence. As a result, his work is a reflection or a journey to find himself. It’s a reflection of his interests and artistic perceptions.
Moreover, the term comes from the idea that in Japanese culture (especially in the popular side) there isn't really an aim for three-dimensional esthetics. In other words, the vast majority of art coming from this country is based on the flatness or two-dimensionality of images. As a result, the Superflat movement remains loyal to this style. We see no depth nor the usage of lights and shadows we’re generally used to.
In Murakami's own perception (and kind of similar to what we were discussing about Japanese culture in the Olympics presentation), this art movement originated in the nineties doesn’t want to distance itself from traditional art. On the contrary, it’s a way to address its essence from a modern point of view. Thus, the rare combination of elements and symbols becomes a way to understand Japanese culture from within a historical, sociological, and artistic discourse that merges the past, present, and future.