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Walking into the Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is like walking inside a toy store that is itself inside of a comic book. You’re immediately confronted with a life-sized statue of Miss Ko, one of Murakami’s leggy cartoon broads, directly referencing the Japanese comic traditions of anime and manga. She fits somewhere uneasily between Saturday morning children’s entertainment and porn. The middle of the giant first room of the exhibit is taken up by “Second Mission Project ko,” in which Miss Ko characters are robotized. They are to be found in various states of transformation, from well-endowed naked females to futuristic fighter planes (plus a vagina and a breast or two). The surrounding walls are covered with typical Murakami canvasses: bright colors, shiny flowers, the bobbing face of DOB, a vaguely Mickey Mouse-like character who has played a major role in Murakami’s work since almost the beginning. This appears to be an artist having a lot of fun.

Murakami calls his art Superflat. It’s a self-conscious celebration of one-dimensionality. Funny thing is, Superflat is damn complicated. As the story goes, Murakami first came up with the term Superflat when a couple of gallerists in California got excited about one of his canvasses because it was “super flat, super high quality, and super clean!” So there is already a tinge of irony and bemusement in the term. Murakami is standing there smiling at the gallerists, partly amused, partly annoyed, wondering how to deal with the situation. Like Warhol in his adoption of Pop as an ethos, a way of life, Murakami decided to embrace the idea of Superflat. He makes it a virtue. But more so than Warhol, Murakami is negotiating some perilous territory in taking on the idea of Superflat.

First of all, he’s taking on the burden of being Japanese after World War II. Being Superflat isn’t simply a matter of fun and games. Being Superflat in Japan comes out of being superflattened. We’re talking about atom bombs here. We’re talking about the literal flattening of entire cities. After that comes a series of metaphorical flattenings. Japan is stripped, in a sense, of its adulthood. America becomes the big daddy, determining what Japan is allowed to do and not to do, taking control of the rebuilding of a nation, injecting a Western consumer culture that Japan gobbles up on the one hand, stewing in sublated resentments on the other. We like to smile at the extreme childishness of so many aspects of Japanese popular culture. Hello Kitty is amusing in its utterly empty banality. Turns out, though, that it isn’t quite so straightforward, or really very funny at all. Superflat resists depth, but it is packed full with tensions that belie the simplicity of its surfaces.

Take, for instance, a work like “PO+KU Surrealism Mr. DOB—Yellow, Pink, Blue, Purple, Green” (1998). The five panels are bright and blaring. Strips of yellow, pink, blue, purple, and green blast vertically or horizontally across the canvass. These blocks of color interrupt rectangles portraying Mr. DOB. But it’s a crazy Mr. DOB. He is contorted, warped. His mouth is a giant circle of sharp teeth surrounded by any number of bulging eyes. It looks like an evil Mr. DOB has been flattened under a pane of glass.

But that is hardly the only flattening. The blocks of color in the panels are reminiscent of the flatness of classic Modernist paintings. This aspect of the work could be appreciated by Clement Greenberg, who argued that the great innovation of Modernist painting was its conscious acknowledgment of the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Painting, Greenberg thought, is always about the material conditions of paint being applied to a surface. To this Modernist background, Murakami adds the specific content of Mr. DOB, the half-mad product of Japanese post-war culture. And by adding “Surrealism” into the mix through the title, Murakami is producing another degree of flattening. His has smooshed the two divergent trends in 20th-century Western art into one canvass. On the one hand, the formal purity of Modernism in its Greenbergian register. On the other, the content-driven tradition of Surrealism and its meditation on the (disturbed) nature of modern consciousness. My flatness, Murakami is saying, can have both.

Still, there is more. The “PO+KU” in the title is a shortening of Pop and otaku. Pop we have already talked about. Murakami is Warholian in the degree to which he accepts popular culture as the playing field within which all of us are operating. Business art, said Warhol, is the next kind of art. Fine, says Murakami, I can accept those constraints and it won’t prevent me from doing anything I want to do.

Otaku is the broad term used to describe people obsessed with anime, manga, and similar styles in Japanese popular culture. The term is double-edged in that it carries the sense of being geeky and socially inept. If you’re an otaku, you’re something of a loser. But that’s also been turned around. Plenty of people are otaku and proud of it. Murakami goes further. Many critics, from Susan Sontag onward, have argued that the high art/low art divide blinds us to what is often most profound in our cultural products. For Murakami, though, otaku isn’t just interesting, but the place where it all starts. It’s in otaku that the traumas and contradictions of Japanese life are working themselves out. So, otaku is already just as deep as anything else could be, or to put it another way, the metaphor of depth is pointless and misleading. It’s all right there on Mr. DOB’s leering psycho-happy face. The surface is already just as complicated as we need it to be. Superflat.

I suppose it is fair, finally, to ask how successful Murakami is in his superflatness. Most Westerners, sophisticated art types or not, take him in one of two ways. From one perspective he’s a blast. His characters are a delight, his colors are bright and lively. Whoopee. From the other perspective he is a clown for consumerism, a business artist in every way that’s a bad thing. He’s a shill, a marketing machine. Both of those interpretations are, of course, completely missing the point, though Murakami is simultaneously a creator of delightful art and an absolute marketing machine. The real point, though, is that he has taken what he’s been given — the landscape of Japanese post-war popular culture — and run with it as something that he couldn’t get outside of even if he wanted to. Otaku isn’t a choice so much as a condition. He’s neither opposing that culture nor mindlessly affirming it. Instead, he’s learned to swim in it, turned it into his natural environment. From there, he can practice expressing the pathos and contradictions and tortured dreams and nightmares of the very same culture of which he is a product. And that’s Superflat. • 16 May 2008