TOKYO — IT'S the tuft of hair on the chin, the relief of a goatee on the smooth aluminum surface of the face, that gives the character's identity away.
Otherwise, the 17-foot-high statue of a big-eyed "Oval Buddha" could be just another of Takashi Murakami's cute creations: a wandering space alien, perhaps, or a member of a tribe of ghosts. The character sits like Humpty Dumpty on the lip of a flower vase, his oversized head far too big for his tiny torso. He has a potbelly. His spine sags. He is asleep.
He is Murakami.
"Over the years, as I worked on it, it became a self-portrait," says Murakami, the 45-year-old Pop art innovator who will unveil the statue at the retrospective of his works called "Copyright Murakami," opening Monday at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Sitting in the minimalist boardroom of his Tokyo office, with not a painting or a splotch of color on its white walls, he says the figure borrows inspiration from the darker creations of legendary Japanese cartoonist Shigeru Mizuki. The character has two faces: one facing forward with eyes shut; another on the back of his head that is baring fangs but may be emitting nothing more threatening than a yawn.
"It says I'm getting old and fat and have a big head," he says, a laugh seeming to explode from his belly. "No sports; just sitting every day. A very tired back. Those are the feelings that went into this.
"He's a very honest character," Murakami says.
"Oval Buddha" is Murakami's newest addition to his cast of creatures, an attempt to create another Pop art icon, and one of the few new works among the more than 90 that make up the MOCA exhibition. Five years in the making from conception to creation, the Oval character came to Murakami as he sat on the toilet. ("Sad, isn't it? I wish it was a more beautiful story," he says without a hint of sheepishness.)
The retrospective also comes six years after the 2001 MOCA show that Murakami curated and which loudly announced his Superflat theory of Japanese art to a Western audience. Murakami's big idea was to see postwar anime and manga as the progeny of the 17th and 18th century Edo era's two-dimensional artistic techniques. He merged those flat patterns with modern decoration to create a specifically Japanese postmodern aesthetic.
The resulting canon -- with gravity-defying sculptures of bazooka-breasted women, cuddly figurines, abstract paintings of mushrooms, digital animation and, oh yes, his famous Louis Vuitton accessories -- has become highly coveted by contemporary art collectors and speculators. The Murakami brand now commands some of the highest of those unearthly prices being fetched in the frenzied bazaar that is the contemporary art market.
Murakami has never been shy about moving merchandise, and the volume is sustained by a cadre of artists at his company, Kaikai Kiki. But he remains a controversial figure in Japan. The idea of producing fine art as a collective project offended Japan's insular art establishment. And there were plenty of cries of "sellout" in 2003 when Murakami took up Louis Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs' offer to splash some colorful Superflat flowers and decoration onto the company's famously brown bags.
But Murakami has been single-minded about seeing art as an enterprise. His most recent book is called "The Theory of Art Entrepreneurship." He's the artist as CEO.
A compelling tale
MOCA curator Paul Schimmel says collectors have provided MOCA with all the pieces needed to present Murakami's story-so-far. It is a compelling tale: A classically trained doctoral art history student at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music rebels at the suffocating Western influence on Japanese culture. Murakami taps into contemporary Japan's otaku culture of "geeks," hard-core fans of anime and manga whose obsession with detail, affection for infantile objects and sexual fetishes have since moved from the fringe of Japanese society in the 1970s to become a mass commercial movement.
"The show is simply Takashi's oeuvre," Schimmel said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, "from the most important paintings and sculptures to the commercial collectibles."
Murakami's art speaks to the sensibilities of the generation born in the 1960s, those who grew up with the reverberations of World War II's disaster pulsing through the culture. They were raised on a media diet of anime and manga, with their anti-technology, antiwar story lines and themes. And they came of age in an era when Japan could throw up little more than Marxist jargon in resistance to the deluge of imported American culture.
The inevitable question posed by a retrospective, however, is whether there still is life in Superflat. Does the style speak to the Japanese of the digital age, a generation largely ignorant about the cultural upheavals of the postwar period and that has economic anxieties unknown back then? Or is it a movement whose time is passing?