Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day

'Superflat is a concept being proposed by artist Takashi Murakami, whose paintings deal with two dimensional spatiality rendered somewhere between traditional Japanese painting and modern anime. The phrase, though coined by Murakami for his art, has recently drawn attention from young scholars due to its connotations: 'devoid of perspective and devoid of hierarchy, all existing equally and simultaneously.'
BT Monthly Art Magazine, Japan, Issue 5, May 2000

I'm writing this in a room lit by a Japanese paper lamp. There's a Japanese girl clicking away at a laptop on the bed deck. We've just had two bowls of Japanese soup. Now we're checking out a website called Hiropon Factory, reading about their joky ideology called Superflat. It describes the depthless drawing style of Hiropon's art star Takashi Murakami. But it could also be a useful term for the way Japanese life fails to distinguish between surfaces and depths, and refuses all ideologies of transcendence.

Superflat is not just the way Murakami draws, or the way Sony makes TV screens. It's also a useful word for the texture of daily life in the world's most perfectly postmodern country.

Contains No Transcendent Values

I was reading a book called A History Of Japanese Literature. This passage caught my imagination. I read it over and over again:

'The Japanese indigenous worldview is basically sublunary and contains no transcendent values... The history of Japanese literature can be described as a history of the multiplex expression of a process of challenge by external and transcendental worldviews to this indigenous worldview, which internalises them and at the same time secularises and 'de-transcendentalises' them.'
Shuichi Kato, A History Of Japanese Literature (Kodansha)

The Japanese are a down-to-earth people. They pay a lot of attention to what's in front of them, and to the present moment. This 'here and now' attitude -- call it superflat, call it sublunary, or call it Zen -- is constantly being challenged by evangelism on the part of foreigners, who all have some sort of transcendental system to sell. Japan deals with this ingeniously by seeming to embrace the evangelists' messages, but in fact incorporating them into Japanese life in subtly subversive ways which change their meanings, and make them quite different. And so foreign ideas are Japanised. Like American electronics, they get slimmed down beyond recognition. They become superflat.

An Interview With Mr Superflat

BT: When you use the word superflat, how far are you meaning the Japanese desire for social levelling, for the eradication of differences between people? Do you want the actual hierarchies to be flattened?

Murakami: The people who come to work for Hiropon Factory don't know what art is. Japan doesn't have high culture, only subculture. Or rather, the high culture we do have is floating on a cloud, as invisible as the emperor. Apart from that there is just subculture, from Beat Takeshi to erotic mangas, and then the outgroup of the otaku, or hobbyists. I think we won't need art and artists some day. That's why Japan is the future, don't you think so? We don't have any religion, we just need the big power of entertainment.

BT: What do you think is the energy that makes the transcendental value system of art float?

Murakami: The American system is floating that cloud... But the motivation for my works comes from the idea that I want all these things to be bound together and flattened, so they're all the same.

Superflattened Rock And Roll

Rock and Roll and Christianity are two transcendent ideologies which have been subtly altered on their arrival in Japan.

The transcendental values of Rock and Roll as a belief system can be summed up in the phrase 'sex and drugs and rock and roll'. Life, in this ideology, is about getting high, fucking groupies, and playing guitar music 'from the heart'. It's about rebellious individualism, intoxication, romantic adolescent nihilism, masculinity, irresponsibility, promiscuity, and so on.

Rock and Rollers sometimes use the Confederate flag as a symbol of their transcendental values. Sometimes they even use swastikas. They wear black leather. They include demonic imagery in their lyrics, suggesting a simple inversion of the transcendental values of the Western Christian tradition. Rock and Rollers may seem to reject the dominant values of the west, but in fact they are their ultimate expression, the same way pirates are the ultimate expression of the principles of international maritime free trade.

Rock is not superflat. Like the Christian religion, it privileges certain places, certain times over others (the church or the concert hall is more 'real' than the house or the tour bus, hymn singing or guitar playing is more 'intense' than talking). A rock musician's life exchanges ten hours of monotony in the back of a tour bus for an hour of glorious transcendence onstage. The Christian's whole life is a burdensome prologue to the joy of his death and eternal life. This downgrading of 'normality' in favour of a few fleeting moments of orgiastic release or heavenly bliss obviously lends itself to drug use and explains why religion is 'the opium of the people'. (It's a metaphysic -- with the emphasis on physic -- which applies equally to rave music if we're to believe Simon Reynolds in 'Altered States'.) The cultists of the early Christian church would recognise the lifestyle of the average Rocker, because it's really a form of life-rejecting asceticism.

The transcendentals in the package we call Rock and Roll are mostly values very much at odds with Japanese tradition. Why sing about the devil when Christianity has never taught you sexual repression in the first place? Why vaunt the merits of drugs in a country where they're hardly available? Why pose as a renegade rebel in a land made pleasant by the warm, diffuse habits of consensus?

From Lemmy To Um Jammer Lammy

What's wrong with transcendental values? Simply the fact that by constantly referencing an absent or invisible reality, they belittle what's present and visible.

In superflat Japan, a small sense of importance or 'realness' invests every activity, no matter how domestic or humble. The sense of occasion reserved in the west for the metaphysical is spread through the whole day, and a charming micro-intensity invests even simple activities. So the evangelical, transcendental values of Rock and Roll, potentially destructive to calm, order and serenity, have had to be subtly transformed.

In Japan, Rock and Roll is exquisite, historically correct teddy boys in Yoyogi Park dressed up in leather, showing a fetishist's attention to the fine points of etiquette. It's Visual Kei bands picking up on the kabuki elements in Kiss or Marilyn Manson and taking them even further in the direction of delicate theatrical artifice. It's Cornelius making a rock music of disjointed surfaces, where all of Western Rock's transcendental claims to some sort of blood-sweat-and-tears authenticity are reversed, and we get songs like 'Count Five Or Six', which sounds superficially like AC/DC but has lyrics which are just numbers, or 'Mike Check' -- a voice repeating the words 'mike check' over and over.

These secularised parodies of the religion of Rock and Roll take it far from its point of origin. Their only parallels in the west are the structural song-jokes of artist Martin Creed or the systems operas of Philip Glass. Formalism and etiquette have replaced sex and drugs. The transcendental values in Rock (as ideology, as lifestyle) have been totally erased, along with any claims it might have made to promote personal or social liberation. In the superflat world, Lemmy plugs in with Um Jammer Lammy.

It's such a radical gesture that, ironically, you could even call it Rock and Roll. Nihilism so undemonstrative, so undespairing and so unromantic is the ultimate nihilism. Anything else is for sissies.

A Greek Chorus

Superflat is paradoxical because it's a sort of immanent transcendentalism which denies all transcendence. Zen, for instance, is a religion without a god or a conception of heaven. It emphasises emptiness, hereness, nowness, the sound of breath being drawn in and released. In everyday life in Japan you notice not only the literal lack of transcendence -- the lack of church spires pointing to a putative 'beyond' -- but also a kind of omnipresent enchantment. It's as if our Christian emphasis on the rottenness of the body and the imperfection of this world has made us blind to sublunary charm. Japan is full of it.

Going into a shop and being greeted by a chorus of 'Irasshaimase!' by a line of cheerful, ghostlike, heavily made-up shop assistants can sometimes feel like entering a scene straight out of Euripides. In Greek tragedy the chorus is an intermediary, spelling out the laws of the gods, commenting from a transcendental perspective on the actions of the play. In a Japanese department store the shop assistants are a chorus welcoming you to the banalities of buying, and yet their very formality and impersonality imbue this simple, stupid activity with a sense of the mysterious, the profound.

Nothing could be, to a Western person, more charmingly otherworldly, and yet at the same time so here-and-now. It's an enchantment of the banal activity of shopping, just as the widespread sexual fetishism of the Japanese hentai (sexual pervert) is an enchantment of the otherwise idiotic activity (elevated by the Christian marriage rite to the status of the transcendental) of fucking.

Sex in Japan, far from being focused, as in the west, in privileged moments (Saturday nights, May, office Christmas parties, honeymoons, etc) is diffused through the whole week, a subtle furtive perverse energy impossible to miss, even at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning, in a government office, in the middle of winter.

Throw Them To The Lions!

What's the opposite of superflat? Baggy? Bulbous? Bombastic? I don't know. But I'm curious about where it all started to go wrong for the west. How did we lose the sublunary charm of the teahouses of the August moon, where preparing a cup of tea for a guest can seem more important than religion, and where God is nowhere but in the details, and thus everywhere?

Who puffed up the rhetoric so that life began to seem lumpy, uneven, flat here, hilly there, shallow in houses, deep in churches? Why, the Christians, of course. Let's blame it on the Christians.

I was reading an article by Jasper Griffin in the New York Review Of Books recently. He was reviewing Late Antiquity, a book of essays about the decline of the Roman Empire. I noticed that the de-secularisation of the Roman Empire by the slow progress of Christianity was precisely the opposite of the secularisation of transcendental imports that happens in Japan. The Romans may at first have intended to survive the encroachment of the crazy Christian cults by homeopathic injections, but the dose soon increased until they died of the disease they had hoped to cure.

Decline And Fall

Gibbon famously described his theme in 'The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire' as 'the triumph of Christianity and Barbarism', bracketing them (quite reasonably) together.

'What difference did the conquest of the empire by the new religion make?' Griffin asks in his review of Late Antiquity. 'Gibbon blamed it for the decline of civic and martial spirit. If we were to try to press the question of the effects of Christianity, we should certainly find in them, to say the least, a dramatic departure from the mental world of the classical city and of the early Roman Empire.'

He cites the changing attitude to the body and nakedness, and to sex. 'Virginity became a cult, and the repulsive notion that husband and wife should compete with each other in sexual abstinence was preached by saints and acclaimed by the faithful,' he notes. Griffin ends by quoting Gregory of Nyssa's observation about life in 4th century Constantinople, the capital of that compromise between Rome and the transcendental values of Christianity, the Holy Roman Empire:

'Everywhere the city is full of it, the alley-ways, the streets, the squares; the men who sell clothes, the money-changers, the food sellers. If you ask about the rate of exchange, you get a lecture on the Created and the Uncreated. You ask the price of a loaf of bread, and you are told by way of reply that the Father is superior, the Son subordinate. You inquire whether the public bath is a convenient one, and he replies that the Son was made out of nothing...'

There you are, you see. It's Christianity, in 4th Century Constantinople, caught in the act of trying to make shopping baggy, when it should be superflat.

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