Toxic Cuteness

Toxic Cuteness

At the Japan Society’s “Little Boy,” Hiroshima leads directly to Hello Kitty.

By Mark Stevens. Published May 21, 2005

On display are dozens of sappy-sweet toys, examples of anime and manga, and many depictions of monsters and adolescent cutie-pies. Works of art based upon this material are also on view, but no strong distinction is made between art and artifact. The key argument here is that, far from being just sugary kitsch, Japanese pop represents the strange, even psychotic response of a population traumatized by World War II, and then made impotent and infantilized by occupation. Fantasy can provide an escape from history. Art averts. Art anesthetizes.

Another example of how modern art and culture has been directly influenced by the bombings. The problem I am facing at the moment is that it’s easy to find Super Flat art but not so much photography, living in the UK means it’s hard to find access to japanese photographers work, other than online, After finishing reading this article my next mission will be to stray away from the artists and instead look at photographers who play part of this extreme escapism method in reaction to the actions of America.

From this vantage point, the firebombing of Tokyo evolved into the city stomp of Godzilla. The mushroom cloud became a pretty flower rising into the sky at the conclusion of a children’s TV show. Fantasies of power are irresistible to the impotent. Little Japanese boys (of all ages) love robots and space suits, and have a kinky obsession with girls who play peek-a-panty. Fashion and shopping provide bits of distracting and addictive glitter. Murakami calls this culture “superflat,” by which he means, in part, that the interior life of the nation has been ironed into an ahistorical and decorative field of games, melodrama, apocalypse, shopping, and cuteness. Everywhere in Japan, for example, you come upon that appallingly cute little figure called Hello Kitty. It has no mouth and no developed limbs—an image of powerlessness and, Murakami suggests, sublimated hysteria.

An interesting take on the meaning of Hello Kitty, I have heard before that she is emotionless therefore you can reflect your ideals and emotions onto her. I have never heard that she is “an image of powerlessness before” it’s a strange thing to suggest as she is one of the most powerful brands in the world. It might be interesting to research deeper into Hello Kitty’s origins, again she is not a photography area but all of this research is providing me context for my project. Giving me that knowledge it’s so important I have before I even start talking.

Also I want to find to superflat manifesto, get my around what it is and decide if it relates to photography or not.

The title “Little Boy” is brilliant: It conflates cuteness with the nickname of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

A major artist would have to reach in a powerful way into the sexual, emotional, and historical fear that gives rise to an impotent infantilism. But the show is utterly convincing in one important respect—this isn’t just Disney.

Unfortunately the references aren’t listed, so I can’t find out where Murakami said that Hello Kitty is “an image of powerlessness”.

Little Boy has also been made into a book, one in which I am seriously looking into finding.

Google Books offers us the synopsis

Yale University Press, 11 May 2005 – 312 pages
Little Boy examines the culture of postwar Japan through its arts and popular visual media. Focusing on the youth-driven phenomenon of otaku (roughly translated as “geek culture” or “pop cult fanaticism”), Takashi Murakami and a notable group of contributors explore the complex historical influences that shape Japanese contemporary art and its distinct graphic languages. The book’s title, Little Boy, is a reference to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, thus clearly locating the birth of these new cultural forms in the trauma and generational aftershock of the atomic bomb.

This generously illustrated book showcases the work of key otaku artists and designers, many of whom are cult celebrities in Japan, and discusses their feature film and video animations, video games and internet sites, music, toys, fashion, and more. In the process, the following questions are posed: What is otaku, and what does it tell us about contemporary social, economic, and cultural life in Japan and throughout the world? How is it related to the pervasive and curious fixation on “cuteness” evident in Japanese popular culture? What impact did the atomic devastation of World War II have on the development of Japanese art and culture?

This brilliantly designed, bilingual (English and Japanese) publication examines these themes to explore how contemporary Japanese art has become inseparable from the subcultural realms of manga and animé (Japanese animation)—a world where meticulous technique, apocalyptic imagery, and high and low cultures meet.

Little Boy concludes Murakami’s “Superflat” trilogy, a project conceived in 2000 to introduce a new wave of Japanese artists and to place their work in the historical context of traditional styles and concepts.

Although this book is priced at over £100 it is key I get my hands on in, a reviewer on amazon says that Murakami himself has written 2 essays within the book that focus on how Kawaii and Otaku are coping mechanisms with what has happened in the past, reverting Japans society to a child like state.
Another reviewer says…
Murakami’s latest curatorial effort has gained nearly universal acclaim amongst the art world. His “Little Boy” exhibition attempts to understand the origins of contemporary Japanese art’s affinity for both the horrifically violent and the frightfully cute (kawaii). Ultimately, Murakami argues that these images are spawned from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined with postwar US domination. Violent imagery becomes a sign for a fascination with the kind of power that postwar Japan lacked. Kawaii imagery is then seen as stemming from Japan’s status as a protectorate of the US. This relationship was not unlike that of a parent and child (the child/adolecent becomes a prevalent theme in Japanese art from postwar era forward.)
– By Andrew C. Raymond
As it turns out we have this book in our library. Keep your eye out for another post on this tonight.

Pop Psychosis: the Influence of the Bomb on Superflat Art

Pop Psychosis: the Influence of the Bomb on Superflat Art

April 19, 2010 By

Japanese artists of the Superflat movement use the language of this pop culture iconography to explore what kawaii says about the Japanese people and their history. Takashi Murakami, founding member of the Superflat movement and author of its manifesto, views the development of kawaii as Japan’s response to World War II and the atomic bomb.

Murakami, “Mushroom Bomb Pink”

Although this article is about an Art movement rather than photography it is a really good piece of text which helps analyse when this escapist, Kawaii, Otaku culture derived in Japan and the reasons for it.

The first section of the article is called…

The Neutered State

When the Americans rewrote the Japanese constitution after World War II, they included a clause prohibiting Japan from using its army for anything but self-defense, and demanding that it remain a “peaceful state.” Some historians see Article 9 as a symbolic castration, forcing a policy of nonaggression and stripping the country of its right to express dissent through military action. In 2005, Murakami curated a show of Superflat art called “Little Boy,” also the codename for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The show’s catalogue directly faults Article 9 for the infantilism and willful innocence implied by the kawaii aesthetic, as it “forced the Japanese people into a mindset of dependency” and cast Japan in the role of a “child” obliged to follow America’s “adult guidance.” The New York Magazine review of the show notes that “Japanese pop represents the strange, even psychotic response of a population traumatized by World War II…from this vantage point, the firebombing of Tokyo evolved into the city stomp of Godzilla. The mushroom cloud became a pretty flower rising into the sky at the conclusion of a children’s TV show. Fantasies of power are irresistible to the impotent…” The sweetly naïve youthfulness of kawaii may well be attibuted to a sense of emasculation in Postwar Japan.

Finally I have found a piece of text which justifies my thoughts. I never thought about the use of childhood imagery as a metaphor for Japans surrender but that makes perfect sense. The superflat movement comments on this and often explores the world of “Kawaii Noir” a sub category of Kawaii (Cute) culture which has a dark undertone.

The Escapist Mentality

The growth of kawaii corresponds to the growth of otaku culture in Japan, and both kawaii and otaku provide a means of escape. Otaku can become engrossed in anime, manga, or other hobbies, sometimes to the detriment of their ability to interact with the outside world. The world of kawaii is a fantastical one by nature; where loaves of bread talk, cats wear pinafores, and children frequently possess special powers. In “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness,” Michael Darling cites anime legend Yoshinori Kanada as an inspiration for Murakami, and notes the escapist atmosphere of his work: “Kanada’s fanciful images of destruction serve to distance the viewer (and the creator) from the real horrors of war, and can be seen as a symptomatic retreat from an honest reckoning with the ravages of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Murakami also filters confrontation with the war through a cartoonish lens, but is aware of the dynamic and deliberately plays with it, as in “Mushroom Bomb Pink.” Here the mushroom cloud has formed the shape of a skull with two big eyes, painted against a fluorescent pink background. Mushrooms recur in many of his pieces, as in “The Army of Mushrooms.” The connection between the image of the mushroom and the miliaristic reference of the title is impossible to ignore, but the implications are obscured by the anthropomorphization of the mushroom and the sunny, springlike palette.
From an academic standpoint, Superflat art and the kawaii aesthetic it reappropriates is a means to examine many aspects of Japanese culture and self-perception. But forefront in the work of Takashi Murakami is a preoccupation with the past and how the Japanese choose to view and confront it.

Murakami, “The Army of Mushrooms”

Although short, this article gets right to the base of japanese pop culture and it’s reference to the war. Thankfully the references are listed, so I can explore this area more.


Darling, Michael. “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness.” Art Journal 60.3 (2001): 77-89. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.

Holmberg, Ryan. “Little Boy: the Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.”Artforum International (2001).

Stevens, Mark. “Toxic Cuteness.” New York Magazine, May 21, 2005.

External links:

Video: Murakami interviewed by Jonathan Ross

Trailer for Murakami’s new animation project:

Another interview with Murakami:

Murakami’s official site:

The fan site!

Wired Magazine profile:

An Editorial: The Bomb in Popular Culture


An Editorial: The Bomb in Popular Culture

Posted by  × August 6, 2011 at 09:23

This article is a great summary on texts influenced directly by the bombing. However I am yet to find an article which actually says how Japanese stroytelling through various methods changed after the bombs, in a way that’s good it means my idea is original, but it also makes my research 10X harder.

However this article is useful for references and quotes.

The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were events which became the focal point for popular and high-brow culture alike in Japan. Artist and author, Takashi Murakami stated:
“The two atomic bombs have left a permanent scar on Japanese history; they have touched the national nerve beyond the effects of the catastrophic physical destruction.”

I have looked at Murakami’s work, it’s impossible not to when looking at Japanese culture and art. The article then goes on to explain Godzilla’s roots which I explored in my post on John Rocco Roberto’s essay but it also offers a different reading of the text.

But some also argue that Godzilla is the true victim in the story, Prof. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) even says so in the movie. The monster was laying peacefully dormant on Japan’s seabed and was rudely awakened by a nuclear blast. When it came to land, its skin was hard and covered in boils, an observation that author William Tsutsui believes links Godzilla with the 被爆者 (Atomic Bomb Victims). Godzilla is also extremely isolated, although poisoned with radioactivity, people run in fear and ultimately want to eradicate the “monster.”

Yatta Man
Yatta man is a childrens TV series which takes direct influence from the bombing.

In the show, the protagonists, Tanpei and Junko are relentlessly pursued by Doronjo, Boyakki and Tonzura, who have a nuclear bomb dropped on them at the end of every episode, from which rises a skull embossed mushroom cloud. Despite this, the dastardly trio reappear next week, back to full health and full of mischief.

Barefoot Gen
This is a short film I have seen before. It approaches the effects of the bombs head on, which is strange for a Japanese anime, usually the influences are subtle. This just adds to the effect it has on emotions even more.

What makes the film even more harrowing is that it is based on the autobiographical manga series by Keiji Nakazawa. Having witnessed the effects of the bombing first hand, Nakazawa exposed the full extent of the damage unflinchingly. It is extremely difficult to watch, even though it is an animated movie, and it could well be a representation of any war, or any country, as the message that seems to seep through is that of humanity and how delicate it is.

Daicon 4

the annual Covention held in Osaka, Daicon, celebrated its fourth year in 1983. At the opening of the convention, a small team of artists put together a short film depicting a bunny girl fighting with the best known “otaku” characters of the past decade, (that small team went on to produce a little TV show called Evangelion). After cruising through the pop-culture world, the woman witnesses a huge atomic explosion, from which plumes of cherry blossom fly, tearing down buildings, leaving a barren wasteland. Afterwards, the Daicon spaceship shots a powerful ray that restores life on the planet and popular characters eat rice-balls together.

The most interesting piece about this animation and Adam Millar’s interpretation of the text is this…

Although the spectacle of the artwork may well be its biggest draw, many believe the Daicon spaceship restoring life is a thin-vieled metaphor that otaku-culture is one way of coming to terms with the subject.

This is something I have been trying to explore for a while, in my head I know that Japanese Otaku culture is about escapism and the amount of references made to the atomic bomb in the Manga I read and Anime I watch is outstanding. However with months of research this is the first example I’ve seen of someone else acknowledging this fact.

A finishing point from Millar, which resounds within me and speaks truth about how a certain group of people cope with the idea and effect of nuclear warfare.

Although these cartoons and comics may seem unimportant, they are a window into the fears felt by Japan, and the deep scar that has yet to be healed.

Ishiuchi Miyako – ひろしま Hiroshima

Ishiuchi Miyako

ひろしま Hiroshima is a series by Ishiuchi Miyako, is consists of 45 large scale photographs of clothing from the victims of the 1945 atomic bomb at Hiroshima. The series was made in 2008 and has been exhibited worldwide. The depiction of the clothing brings an emotional feeling to the viewer, it makes us think about who used to occupy these clothes and what they must have gone through.




Photo by Vitor Munhoz –