It seems like a long time since 2005 when I reviewed the exhibition Little Boy, curated by Japanese art star Takashi Murakami; picture an Asian Andy Warhol on Redbull. It was a celebration of all things Kawaii, or cute, which were commercially successful for decades in the form of film anime, manga comics and scale figures. Little Boy offered up proof of a widespread “exploding subculture” of which contemporary art, itself, was only a small part. The artists mimicked the culture, copying all the attributes of printed matter/comics; Murakami insisted on the “Super-Flat” like a mantra. This East-West mix caught on, a fascinating reversal of how Japanese print styles (flatness) influenced European modernists in the 19th century. Of course, the Japanese Empire, in turn, had quickly borrowed Western military technology in 1905, unfortunately, following our example of colonization. Hello Kitty Mania was, in short, the result of the disastrous events of WW2 and the Cold War. By now, I imagine many geekish, “housebound” Otaku gentlemen must have grown up, gotten jobs, and started families.
Now, with a curatorial about-face, the Japan Society slows down and takes stock with a more considered and delicate show, Bye Bye Kitty!!!. At this catastrophic time of triple disaster in Japan, there is irony in seeking the opposite side of the coin. This sobering show does succeed in leaving out infantile cacophony. Some of the more somber elements had, in fact, been included in Little Boy, which makes one think that the whole “cute” poise was a blind for something else, mass disassociation and/or future-phobia. Bye Bye Kitty!!! is certainly a charged title – ditto Little Boy, the name of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – implying that Kawaii, “cuteness,” has peaked. It was never “ha ha” funny, and always lived happily buried within an animatic, Akira-like apocalypse.
Bye Bye Kitty!!! faces this subtler content as a matter of degree, a clearing of cultural smoke. The Fukushima “fallout” is a dreadful reminder of the fragile state of life on Earth — that’s how Godzilla (born 1954) was created in the first place! This Spartan view was a large part of the whole Kawaii/Otaku movement, a dark nuclear legacy paired with fetishized fashion and the penchant for nubile schoolgirls.**
The work selected for Bye Bye Kitty!!! lives up to the title; not a toy in sight. Artist Manabu Ikeda forms the backbone of the show with large detailed landscapes full of microcosm and metaphor within an apocalyptic day-to-day. Intense viewing is required here; the beautifully detailed, minute human behavior and technological interweaving is mesmerizing (my bi-focals were not sufficient!) One piece takes on a pagoda structure, another, a chunk of the earth floating in space. The third work is an organic tree-like structure including all human folly miniaturized, like a high-tech Bosch. I needed a magnifying glass.
The most compelling work is by London based artist Hiraki Sawa. His large video — a whimsical, stop-action animation — is a blend of Japanese understatement with warm, old-fashioned, Western sentiments, a modernized and gentle version of the Quay Brothers. Wrapped in a nostalgic look at childhood, the piece includes Victorian Rocking horses, chimes and all sorts of surreal, Anglo-Japanese montage including English wall sockets. Sawa’s smaller piece, the size of an alarm clock, is tiny and powerful: A silent black and white video with household objects — toasters, spoons, toilet rolls – that one sees walking around on fairy-sized human legs. Perfect contemporary humor and no inane cartoon cats.
To bid you a farewell as you exit the show, the ever-popular painter Yoshitomo Nara places an unassuming photo of two stuffed, oversized, Hello Kitties near the door. They are sitting on a tombstone in a pet cemetery.
** So are aspiring dirty old men on the wane? Judging by my recent visit to Zenkaicon, the Anime/Manga show at Valley Forge Convention Center, this phenomenon shows no sign of diminishing. There’s plenty of participation – some amateur K-pop dancing in the halls – by dressed up, or under-dressed, super ninja school girls and big eyed men-children with long shiny forelocks. Is Emo-con a word? These creatures mingle shyly in the hotel lobby where young, freshly married couples are being professionally photographed!