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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Takashi Murakami, 1998

WITH MIDORI MATSUI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHRIS MOORE

Takashi Murakami appeared on the Tokyo art scene in the early '90s as a member of a new artistic generation referred to as "Neo Pop." By creating works which freely appropriated the icons of Japanese animation and comics, these artists brought popular, debased culture to the level of the gallery and museum. Like the Pop artists of the '60s before them, these young artists realized that a deeper understanding of who they were could be found on the surface of the everyday world in which they lived. In aligning themselves with the subculture around them, they became the first generation of artists in postwar Japan to speak for themselves in their own visual language.
Now, at the age of thirty-six, Takashi Murakami has become one of the most visible — and popular — artists working in Japan. The anime-inspired figure of "Mr. Dob" is the subject of Murakami's recent paintings and inflatable balloons. "Mr. Dob," who vaguely resembles Mickey Mouse, is not only a symbol of anime culture, but of the particularly Japanese sensibility that is characterized by an envy of and competitiveness towards American popular culture. Since his appearance in 1993, "Mr. Dob" has come to represent the hybrid nature of contemporary Japanese art today.
In recent years, Murakami has been avidly organizing traveling exhibitions of even younger artists. His most recent venture was "Ero Pop Tokyo," an exhibition at George's in Silver Lake, which brought together people who work in the animation industry and contemporary artists exploring peculiarly Japanese sexual fantasies influenced by anime and underground style. I talked with Takashi, fresh from his West Coast adventure, over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza.


MIDORI: I've heard that your next work is going to be an animation film. Did you always want to be an animator?
TAKASHI: I wanted to, but I gave up the idea because I don't have the talent. Animators are like actors who draw. To become a good animator, you should be able to do more than just draw well. You must imagine the movements of characters and reconstruct them in drawings. I don't have that sort of imagination. So I'm not going to make my animation film as an animator, but as an artist. I've wanted to do it for the last four years.

MIDORI: Why do you want to make this film?
TAKASHI: Because I'm moved by animation films as deeply as I am by some artworks. I get so high seeing them that I want to recreate the same feeling, make something that moves people just as much. To see drawings move is a totally different experience than looking at computer graphics. I love drawings. I love feeling the same rush that a soccer player feels running on the field, scoring a goal — and I get that from watching drawings move.

MIDORI: Is that because the drawings achieve a sort of three-dimensional reality?
TAKASHI: Not really. If you train yourself, you can recognize each drawing that constitutes a stage of movement in an animation film. And you can see minute changes of drawing that add up to one action, too. When you see each drawing catching up with the movement of the picture, you feel the speed infinitely increasing inside of yourself. The speed is dizzying, and I'm in ecstasy.

MIDORI: What will the finished film look like?
TAKASHI: It will be totally devoid of drama, dedicated solely to recreating this experience. Some may feel as though they're looking at a Giacometti drawing. But someone who draws a lot will recognize what I'm doing. The film will ultimately attract only an art audience, and it won't be competing in the major market like regular animations. I want to create a unique market for a film like mine.

MIDORI: What do you think of Andy Warhol and his experimental films?
TAKASHI: Andy was someone who could not distance himself from reality. He needed to invent media constantly in order to protect himself from that immersion. He created media as "others," which were not related to his own interiority, and he defined his identity through those media. So I do respect him, and I learned a lot from him. I think that in recent years, my artworks have become the apparatus through which I think about myself. So I can have them assembled by others, since their importance is not related to my handwork.

MIDORI: But you only work with the best craftsmen.
TAKASHI: Yes. I always ask for the best people in the Kaiyodo Company, the extraordinary manufacturer of animation figures, which is run and owned by the artist Boeme. They are the best in Japan. But it's difficult to work with them. It not only costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time, but the manufacturers are specialists with huge pride for what they do. I must learn their language in order to understand their views, as well as communicate my needs.

MIDORI: So it's like a collaboration with them?
TAKASHI: Exactly.

MIDORI: Which animators do you like the most?
TAKASHI: My first influence was Yoshinori Kanada. I discovered him as a child, just after I started drawing. His drawings were wonderful. He used to work with the animation director Hayao Miyazaki, doing flight scenes, speedy scenes, and images of landscape seen through a fish-eye lens. I also found the drawings of Horst Jansen amazing. As a child, it was always a mystery to me why I thought those totally unrelated artists were so important. Now I understand what goes into making those special works.

MIDORI: When did anime become important to you? Were you influenced by any particular work?
TAKASHI: Anime became important to me when I was seventeen years old. The magazine called Animage was founded then. It showed me the process by which animation films were made — the system and structure behind the picture. After that, I tried to read the process by carefully watching animation films on TV and in the theater. As I went back to childhood favorites as something to be studied, I found them more interesting than ever.
When I saw that animation films had a coherent system of production, I realized that there was a field that allowed you to draw all the time and also enabled you to function in society. When I studied these films, I was trying to understand animation as a medium, rather than what the films individually expressed.

MIDORI: But people ordinarily don't look at animation films that way. They see them as cartoonish drama, a substitute for theater.
TAKASHI: I'm not interested in drama. Or maybe I am. Just the other day, I was looking through Kyoko Okazaki's comic, River's Edge. Although I was primarily looking at her drawings and the book design, in the end, I nearly cried. Okazaki is a very conscious creator. She's always had a very critical approach to both comic media and dramatic structure. I guess I like a conscious narrative like hers — works that show reality from strange angles.

MIDORI: You love researching the strategies of popular media and simulating them in your work. Your "Kase Taishuu Project" was both a parody and a simulation of the way the Japanese entertainment industry makes stars out of teenagers who have no particular talent.
TAKASHI: I'm not as interested in revealing media strategy as some people in my generation. In that sense, I'm very much a child of '80s Japanese mass culture. In the '80s, the TV producer Yasushi Akimoto invented the teeny-pop group Onyannko Club because he revealed this process of making stars out of ordinary girls — in fact, it was the main part of the show. The audience was given the illusion that they were producers presiding over the audition. Knowing the whole thing to be make-believe, they still enjoyed the process as a game. I myself don't really understand things until I go through the entire process.

MIDORI: And you also want to influence others.
TAKASHI: Exactly. Just recently, Mr. Sugatsuke, the book editor, said to me, "Takashi, I want to publish your art book. But it's hard to make one. I find your sense of mission more interesting than your artwork. But you must leave the ideology out of an art book — otherwise, the clients won't buy." But I want to be popular. I don't have to be liked. I don't mind being hated if I'm popular.

MIDORI: When I told a curator that I liked your twisted, self-contradicting willingness to create "difficult" works in spite of your desire to be popular, she said, "Ah, you like his attitude."
TAKASHI: But that's what art is all about for me.

MIDORI: Tell me why you chose sex as the theme for your exhibition, "Ero Pop Tokyo."
TAKASHI: As I'm getting older, I'm losing interest in the physical part of sex. I want sexuality to be expressed fictitiously, with layers of illusions and gimmicks. The exhibition was planned mainly in order to fulfill my own needs. I wanted to feel sexual in conceiving the exhibition, making preparations, giving contexts, giving birth to concrete visual images, and bringing them into an actual space. When it is completed as an exhibition, it's more artistic than sexual. But I've enjoyed the erotic excitement of the process.

MIDORI: What about the sculpture of a girl with big breasts, with milk shooting out of them above her head? Isn't that related to your own sexuality?
TAKASHI: I made the work in order to understand the quirky sexuality of otakus — Japanese comic geeks.

MIDORI: But you used to be called an otaku artist.
TAKASHI: I am not an otaku. Otakus are pure dilettantes. They never create anything, but they know the minutest detail about strange animation films, comics, and game softs. And they can only critique them with the language of anime or comics. But I still thought it was great that they had a system of criticism made up entirely from the language of their media. So I wanted to participate in their events, listen to them talk, and pick up on what looked really strange to me — the things that seemed to reveal the deepest mystery of the otaku mind.

MIDORI: And you found something in this figure of the girl?
TAKASHI: That figure of the girl with the big breasts was based on a drawing I bought at a comic market. I was astounded by the fact that the guy who drew the image had completely confused the object of his desire — the girl — and his own sexual drive — milk spurting from her breasts. It was a rebus of the otaku sexuality. So in order to understand it better, I made the sculpture.
MIDORI: Do works like that create controversy? How did women respond to your show?
TAKASHI: I was a bit afraid of that, too, but the response was positive. Many women found the works entertaining as parodies of sci-fi heroines like Wonder Woman. The majority of the audience regarded the works in the show as variations of cult or mondo films, in other words, as pure fiction.
But one day, a middle-aged man came to the gallery and spent three hours looking at the works. The next day, he came back to complain how obnoxious the whole thing was and demanded that the show be closed immediately. He was a member of a minor religious cult or something. But the director of the gallery said, "If you find them so obnoxious, why did you spend three hours looking at them? You could have just gone home." Then, he suddenly stopped talking and left.

MIDORI: But the show was a big success. Weren't some works bought by rock musicians and important collectors?
TAKASHI: That's true. A member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers bought all of Boeme's sculptures, and Peter Norton bought a work by Masakatsu Iwamoto — who is known as "Mr." Paul McCarthy really liked his work as well.

MIDORI: Can you talk about the artists who were in the show and why you brought them together?
TAKASHI: In addition to my work, the show included Boeme, who's been making exquisite small sculptures modeled on anime girls for the last fifteen years; Henmaru Machino, the eccentric cartoonist who draws absurd portraits of girls with body parts proliferating to form nightmarish monstrosities — his work is printed in erotic comic magazines; Hideaki Mimasaka, an editor and writer of underground comics — these represented the edgiest but most effective expressions of geek culture; Mr., who draws portraits of pre-pubescent girls on the back of receipts; and Tomoki Morioka, who takes pictures of the girls he meets on the street.

MIDORI: So you were trying to contextualize the artists in the exhibition?
TAKASHI: The last two were included to show how the imagination and expression coming out of what's called subculture inspire contemporary artists. By juxtaposing the people representing two conventionally separate cultural categories, I wanted to show the reality of contemporary Japanese culture.

MIDORI: Which is very different from the situation in the West.
TAKASHI: Yes. In the West, contemporary art is treated either as the plaything of hyper-rich people or as an intricate jigsaw puzzle for super-intellectuals. But postwar Japan never had a solid hierarchy of taste to give contemporary art an influential position. And because there was no common language to give the proper status to people who were doing innovative and unique work with comics, animation, and computer games, they were presented in the market along with everything else.
At the same time, subcultural expressions can be discussed as something just as important as literature, film, or other "high" art. So I wanted to present this mixture, or hybridity, as both really everyday and original aspects of Japanese culture.

MIDORI: Did people see these works as fine art or just as a subcultural phenomenon?
TAKASHI: The division between subculture and fine art seemed to be irrelevant. And that's exactly what I was aiming for. By placing these works in an in-between area that didn't solely belong to any individual category of animation, comics, art or literature, I wanted to suggest a freer position.

MIDORI: Where do you get your information about animes and animation figures?
TAKASHI: I get magazines about erotic game softs in local bookstores near my studio in Asaka. It's one of those nondescript new suburbs of Tokyo, where bookstores rarely sell serious books, but lots of biker magazines and pornographic magazines.

MIDORI: A real suburbia.
TAKASHI: Yes. But I get fanzines in speciality shops in Tokyo, and Mr. gets really rare, underground stuff at Comiquet, the Comic Market. Have you heard of Comiquet? It's the biggest fair for fanzines on anime and comics in Japan. It's held twice a year in Tokyo, and they have more than 1500 booths. So I check up on what looks interesting in the fair's information guide, and ask Mr. to buy things for me.
When a fanzine is really rare, you have to line up for at least three hours to buy it. There are also professional buyers of fanzines. They come in teams of four or more people, and buy the kinds of magazines that are sold with a limit of five copies per person. They keep several for themselves, and sell the rest to speciality shops for three times the original price. The shops then sell the fanzines for perhaps double the price they paid.

MIDORI: When did Comiquet start?
TAKASHI: Around 1980. It's held in the summer and again just after Christmas. It draws 350,000 people over three days. They say they'll get 500,000 next year.

MIDORI: Are the visitors mostly otaku people?
TAKASHI: Yes. But every student at Tokyo's art school must have visited Comiquet at least once, since many people enter art school wanting to be comic creators or animation artists. Even after they've given up the idea, they still make the pilgrimage to the annual festival of otakus.

MIDORI: Who exactly are otakus? How old are they?
TAKASHI: The original otakus are between 25 and 45 years old, but there's already another generation consisting of teenagers. I can no longer go to Comiquet because it's physically too challenging. With so many people, the place is like a forest — it makes you feel as though you were in a smelly forest.

MIDORI: I hear that the business targeted at otaku people is one of the few really profitable ventures in Japan today.
TAKASHI: Yes. There's another large fair called Wonder Festival, where manufacturers of animation figures have booths. It's also held twice a year and draws about 10,000 people. This is the one I go to. The animation figure industry is now having a boom period. It started with Tod McFarlen's figures for Spawn, and now Brister Pack is very popular. Not just otakus, but fashion-conscious people and musicians go to Wonder Festival. You can even buy an animation figure shopping guide like Figure King at regular convenience stores. There's no recession for this industry.

MIDORI: So that's the background of "Ero Pop Tokyo" — the most powerful part of the Japanese subculture.
TAKASHI: Japanese cultural expressions are still catching up with the ideas and trends of the American '80s — although I also think that we are still in the realm of the '60s. With thirty years' time lag, we've just discovered the joys of making Pop Art for ourselves.

MIDORI: In a place like Japan, where the willingness to comply with others is the most effective mode of control, your work, or at least your attitude, your conscious, analytical approach toward culture's various systems can help people cut through the hazy layer called "reality."
TAKASHI: That may be one of the reasons why I think that art is necesssary. You cannot create an artwork just for yourself, you have to create a scene in which you can work and survive, while letting others continue and elaborate on what you started. I believe that someone who invents a new category and establishes a system for it is always needed —in every age.

© index magazinegelatin1
Takashi Murakami by Chris Moore, 1998
© index magazinegelatin1
Takashi Murakami by Chris Moore, 1998

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