Murakami Takashi

The centerpiece of artist Takashi Murakami' exhibition at the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Tokyo last year was an almost three meter sculpture titled "My Lonesome Cowboy." The nude male figure, made of iron, resin and finished in matte acrylic and oil paints, was priced at JY4.5 million. With spiky blue hair and multi-colored eyes Murakami's lonesome cowboy would not look out of place in a kid's manga comic or a computer game except that he is frozen in the act of masturbation, complete with a spiraling white lasso in the air around his head. My Lonesome Cowboy is actually designed to be a companion for Murakami's earlier sculpture, "Hiropon," a large breasted cartoon girl. Together they are a controversial yet beautiful take on Japan's highly sexed pop culture, and ero-manga (erotic comics) in specific.

In a country like Japan where genitalia in media are routinely fuzzed out, Murakami's full frontal art has even more of an edge to it. To some it is positively pornographic, for others it may even border on the illegal. Most of the newspapers and magazines to cover the show have preferred to print just a head-shot to avoid trouble.

Murakami describes his work as part of the poku movement, which is the fusion of pop culture with otaku (geek) culture. Originally written with the kanji character for home or house, the term otaku has broadened and now many, like Murakami, see otaku culture as Japan's first unique modern cultural movement. These days more and more people are recognizing that otaku culture, specifically the high quality anime and manga that Japan produces, and consumers responses to them are an important aspect of modern mainstream Japanese pop culture.

Through his work Murakami has introduced the manga/anime style to a wider audience, and made waves in the international art world to boot (in addition to three recent shows in Tokyo he has already held many successful exhibitions in London and Los Angeles).

As well as his eye catching sculptures, Murakami has produced bright candy-colored paintings. In last year's show the main motif was the cosmos flower. These bright flowers with smiling faces covered small and large canvases against a variety of backgrounds, the biggest being a three paneled gray canvas priced at JY2.5 million. Many of his paintings also feature his original character "DOB." A bubble-like character, DOB could be easily be a perverted Mickey Mouse: one minute he is shown smiling, the next he is morphing shapes, showing his sharp teeth or melting into a weird shape. Whilst DOB might not be quite as omnipresent as Mickey or Japan's Kitty-chan he does feature on postcards, T-shirts and watches, all more affordable than Murakami's pricey original canvases and sculptures.

Murakami is adept at combining commercial pop culture with fine art, and is sure to remain one of Japan's most influential artists for years to come. His images seem at first to be purely plastic and disposable like the pop culture they draw on, but underneath they have a raw and often disturbing edge. Get too close and you feel like the smiling flowers or DOB might bite you.

Matt Wilce

349: Toshinobu Kubota
First Japanese man of soul
348: Midori Ito
Ice skater
347: Tomohiro Hoshino
Paralyzed artist and poet
346: Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador
344: Norika Fujiwara
The Japanese "It Girl"
343: Ikebana
Flowers kept alive
342: Hirotada Ototake
Author of "No One's Perfect"
341: Korean food
Hot and popular in Japan
340: Tsuyoshi Kunasagi
Pointy-faced SMAP member
339: Koji Ishizaka
Heavyweight veteran actor
338: Kokichi Mikimoto
Founder of Mikimoto Pearls
337: Warren Cromartie
The "Messiah" of the Yomiuri Giants
335: Bonsai
Japan's dwarfed trees in a pot
334: Salaryman Kintaro
New icon in Japanese pop culture
333: Nagare Hagiwara
Rugged Japanese actor
332: Noboru Takeshita
Kuromaku politician
331: Ihara Saikaku
Radical 17th century writer
330: Ikkokudo
Okinawan ventriloquist
329: Takashi Murakami
The centerpiece of artist
328: Hideki Togi
The Imperial Palace Gagaku Orchestra
327: Konoshiki
Japan's most feared and most successful wrestler
326: Tarepanda
The floppy panda of Japan
325: Suziki Ichiro
Orix Blue Wave right fielder
324: Jakucho Setouchi
Nun re-writes "The Tale of Genji"
323: Otohime
Helping women's bathroom etiquette
322: Dragon Ash
Hip-hop revolutionists
321: Kimiko Date
Tennis player
320: Kan Fukuhara
319: Godzilla
Mutant dinosaur movie star
318: Thee Michelle Gun Elephant
Popular punk band
317: Ken Kutaragi
CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment
316: Masahiro Motoki
High-rising entertainer
315: Katada Kikuyu
Japan's premier female taiko player
314: Keizo Obuchi
Prime Minister
313: Booska
The big, orange bucktooth monster
312: Shizuyo Sato
Japanese martial arts master
311: Yujiro Ishihara
Actor, singer and Japanese icon
310: Saburo Kitajima
Japanese enka singer
309: Kaya Yamada
Japan's hippie god
308: L'Arc en Ciel
Japanese pop band
307: Shintaro Ishihara
Governor and author
306: Morita Akio
Sony co-founder
305: Miyazaki Hayao
Film producer
304: Sailor Moon
Girl's comic
303: Hachiko
Shibuya's loyal dog
302: Hayashi Chie
Japanese dancer
300: Kobayashi Sachiko
Enka singer

Issues 350 +
Issues 299-250
Issues 248/9-233