What exactly is the otaku culture that conquered the world?

In July 2020, a video posted by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who is popular all over the world, on social media Instagram has aroused heated discussions in the art, fashion and trend circles. In the video, Murakami told the story of his heartbreak-due to excessive investment and the impact of the epidemic, his gallery and company are facing bankruptcy, so he had to stop some projects, including the science fiction film ” The Eye of Mizuki 2″.

Most of Murakami’s works are like his most iconic sunflowers, with bright colors and flat images. They are both cute and weird. They incorporate cartoons, extreme violence and erotic elements. He once put forward the “ultra-flat” declaration, “The society, customs, art, and culture in the future will become extremely flat like Japan…Today, Japanese video games and cartoon animation can best express this characteristic, and these are in the world culture. Has the most powerful force in China”. “Super flat” has multiple meanings. It not only refers to the characteristics of Japanese paintings and cartoons (compared to Western perspective, Japanese paintings tend to be flat), but also a description of Japanese society.

After World War II, Japan experienced a bubble economy and a “lost decade.” The shadow of war lingered on the head, and the reality of declining income, unemployment and crime rate surged before us. Young people turn their backs on the hopeless real life, plunge into the virtual world constructed by comics, games, and novels, seek comfort in it, and take the initiative to stay away from political life. Otaku culture has risen accordingly. “Flatness” is not only a state of young people, but also the position of otaku culture in the entire Japanese society and culture-marginal and suppressed.

When the otaku and the second element culture were introduced into China, they also experienced a marginal period, but now they have become an inseparable part of popular culture. The great success of the New Year’s Eve party at Station B. The game “Animal Forest Friends Club” is frequently searched. The otaku song “Rainbow Beat” was selected by the program group “Sister Riding the Wind and Waves”… Countless facts show that the otaku The ethnic culture no longer belongs to the subculture and has become the mainstream.

In this context, it is obviously necessary to look back at the origin of otaku culture in Japan. From the busy streets of Asakusa and Kawabata Yasunari’s “Asakusa Red Mission”, to Murakami Takashi’s “Little Boy” (intentionally named after the atomic bomb) exhibition, to the virtual world constructed by the Internet, Japanese research expert and editor-in-chief of “New York Review of Books” Ian · Bruma explained the origins of otaku culture and traditional Japanese culture in a context, the special significance of Takashi Murakami’s art to Japanese culture, why young people use this method to fight the outside world, the future of otaku culture, etc. Questions.

Asakusa, never sleeps in sorrow
Asakusa has always been beautiful. This area in the eastern part of Tokyo, leaning on the Sumida River, is the scene of the novel “Asakusa Red Mission” written by Kawabata Yasunari in the late 1920s. Since the late 17th century, Yoshihara, located in the north of Asakusa, with its streets like a maze, has been an officially licensed weathered area. Residents here range from red card oiran to cheap prostitutes, and city residents and samurai are their patrons. In the Edo period, Asakusa truly became a paradise for pleasure. It is said that the 1910s were the wildest years in Asakusa. Immediately after the Russo-Japanese War, Russian girls danced and acted with gypsy music, called “opera”, which added an exotic flavor to the sixth district where most theaters are located. Some opera houses came for real. The luxurious Empire Theater hired Italian Rossi from London to perform operas, but Rossi could not find enough singers. In the “Magic Flute” he produced, the singer had to play Pamina and the Queen of the Night; when both roles were on stage at the same time, he had to use a substitute. Japan’s earliest movie theater and Tokyo’s first “skyscraper” Lingyun Pavilion (also known as “Asakusa Twelfth Floor”) are both in Asakusa. Soon, silent films with excellent debaters (narration) became more popular than restaurant shows and theaters, and Chaplin, Douglas Van Punk, and Clara Bow became stars of Asakusa.

Regardless of the size, entertainment areas usually have a fleeting quality, just like Asakusa has a lively atmosphere, which may be its charm. However, Asakusa in the 20th century did survive on the edge. The entire area was completely destroyed twice: once was the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. When the earthquake occurred, everyone was cooking lunch. Most of the buildings here were made of wood, and the entire area quickly became a piece of land. The other time was in the spring of 1945, when American B-29 bombers blew up most of Tokyo, and the entire Asakusa was reduced to rubble, and 60,000 to 70,000 people died in a few nights.

After the earthquake in 1923, this famous park was turned into charred ruins. “Asakusa Twelfth Steps” looked like corrupt tree stumps. Only a pile of rubble remained in the opera palace. Only Sensoji Temple was unharmed. There is a statue of a famous Kabuki in the temple. Some people think that the heroic appearance of the statue resisted the fierce flames. But just as the joy of Asakusa is short-lived, so is its low ebb-people have rebuilt movie theaters, opera halls and parks. In 1929, Futura Casino opened on the second floor of the Aquarium. Next door is the insect museum that escaped the catastrophe of the 1923 earthquake, also known as the “worm house.” We can find all the maverick, vulgar and new things in Asakusa between the two wars at Futura Casino. Futura Casino symbolizes the westernized jazz generation of Japanese young people. This is the era of “modern boys” and “modern girls”. The cultural creed at that time was “erotic, absurd, and unreasonable.”

Asakusa, the spiritual home of Kawabata Yasunari
This spirit inspired Kawabata Yasunari’s early works, and his books also made Futura Casino famous. I spent 3 years in Asakusa, wandering in the street, chatting with dancers and punks, but he mostly just walked around. He wrote these insights into an outstanding modern novel “Asakusa Red Mission”, which was first published in 1930. The focus of this novel is not on characterization, but on expressing a new way of viewing and describing the atmosphere: switching quickly between fragmented scenes, such as editing movies, or using reports, advertising slogans, popular lyrics, fantasy , Historical anecdotes and urban legends made a collage. The speaker was a friendly man who wandered around the streets and alleys freely, telling stories that happened here and there, full of an atmosphere of “lust, absurdity, and irrationality”. A large part of this unsophisticated way of storytelling comes from European expressionism or the “Caligarianism” of the German film “Dr. Caligari’s Cabin”. Kawabata confessed that he hated his early experiments in modern novels, and he soon developed a very different and more classical style. The most unusual deed of his “Asakusa Red Group” is serialized in the mainstream media “Asahi Shimbun”, just as Joyce’s “Ulysses” was serialized in The Times. This confirms the high literacy level of the Japanese media at that time, and also shows that Japanese people are willing to read avant-garde literature in popular newspapers; and the combination of avant-garde expressionism and Asakusa’s lower class life should also help the public accept it.

The combination of upper-class and lower-class culture is naturally part of modernism. Like many artists in the 1920s, Kawabata was very interested in detective novels and Caligarianism, which was usually accompanied by a fascination with violent crime. None of the characters in Kawabata’s novels has the depth of modernist “antiheroes” like Franz Biberkopf in Deblin’s “Berlin, Alexanderplatz” or Bloom’s of Joyce. Kawabata, like many Japanese wandering writers, wins by conveying the atmosphere of the situation. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 4:

While the dancers on the stage danced her Spanish dance (this story is true, I didn’t make it up), although a small piece of tape was attached to her upper arm, I could still clearly see the traces of her recent drug injection. At two o’clock in the morning in the square of Sensoji Temple, sixteen or seven wild dogs barked and chased a cat. Asakusa is like this, you can smell crime everywhere.

In the following paragraph, “I” is thinking about whether to include one of the characters in the story:

Another person I want to join, a very miserable foreigner, was the head of the water circus from the United States that year. Someone put a 30-meter-high ladder on the burnt wreckage of the “East Dance Dance” stage, and the leader jumped into a small pond from above. A fat woman jumped down like a seagull from a height of 15 meters, and she really looked like a seagull. very beautiful.

It’s an understatement, hastily taken, a bit sexy, confusing. After that, militarism suppressed all frivolous pleasures, and by the end of the 1930s, this artistic conception had disappeared. Later, the bomb razed Asakusa to the ground, but only the material was destroyed. Asakusa once again showed amazing vitality. The American writer Donald Ritchie came to Japan with the American occupying forces when he was young. In 1947, he met Kawabata in Asakusa. One could not speak English and the other could not speak Japanese. Together, they climbed the old underground tunnel tower to inspect the dilapidated Asakusa. Rich later wrote:

This was once Asakusa. Around the majestic Sacred Goddess of Mercy Temple, now there are only charred and empty squares. I have read that there used to be a women’s opera house, where girls sang and danced; gamblers with tattoos gathered here to place bets; trained dogs walked on their hind legs; Japan’s fattest lady sat here.

Today, two years after it was burned to ashes, the originally empty square is occupied by rows of tents and temporary shelters, and the skeletons of several buildings are gradually taking shape. The girl with her hair bun was sitting in front of the newly built teahouse, but I couldn’t find the fattest lady in the world, maybe she disappeared into the fire.

Kawabata didn’t say much at the time, and Rich didn’t know what the elderly man in the winter kimono was thinking. When Rich said the name “Yuko”, Kawabata smiled and pointed his finger at Sumida River.

Today’s Asakusa is no different from other parts of Tokyo: crowded, commercialized, and neon-lit concrete jungle, and Sensoji Temple is full of nostalgic souvenir shops. However, most cultural activities in the 21st century no longer take place on the streets, but in the virtual world of personal computers.

Murakami Takashi’s malicious “kawaii”
The curator of “Little Boy” is currently Japan’s most influential visual artist Takashi Murakami. He draws innocent and evil cartoons, and makes a bit of erotic dolls. He is a very successful designer (including designing LV handbags), and an art entrepreneur, theorist, and mentor. There are many apprentices in his studio, such as a traditional Japanese workshop and a complex of Andy Warhol’s factories. Warhol turned uninspired, mass-produced commercial images into artworks displayed in art museums; Murakami’s philosophy was to go the other way, he used advertisements, Japanese animation, and video games to create artworks. Then put the artwork back into the popular culture dominated by the market mechanism.

Murakami originally studied Japanese painting (Nihonga, Japanese modern realism), and was also an expert in the mainstream classical Kano school of Japanese art from the 15th to 18th centuries. He believes that Japanese art is not as noble and vulgar as European art. He is committed to rediscovering the real Japanese tradition in the virtual “new pro” garbage world. But in fact, traditional Japanese art also has levels, and there is a clear distinction between noble and lower culture. Because of this, well-educated nobles watched Noh performances, but on the noisy and dazzling Kabuki stage, they performed the deaths of these nobles. The exquisite scroll paintings and screen paintings of the Kano School are mostly Chinese literary styles, and the buyers are high-class warriors. These samurai considered the woodcuts of oiran and merchants to be the most crude.

But on the whole, Japan values ​​the mastery of past styles or master styles, rather than personal innovation. There are indeed outstanding individualists or apostas in Japanese art, but there is no European romantic ideal that expresses the uniqueness of the artist in a brand-new way. Murakami’s handbags designed for LV and his acrylic paint paintings continue this artistic tradition.

The images created by Murakami himself and his colleagues usually have baby-like qualities: little girls with big eyes, cute furry animals, winking smiling mascots that can only be seen in candy boxes or children’s comics. However, these seemingly “kawaii” images are actually not innocent at all, and sometimes even full of maliciousness. For example, a cute cartoon girl sinking into the earth in a meteor shower like the end of the world; a kawaii girl The child breathes fire like a monster, and the picture resembles the hell scene of traditional Buddhism; Murakami used red acrylic paint to draw a smoking death head with many wreaths in his eye sockets. This is a stylized version of the atom cloud.

Otaku culture
Many new Japanese images have an atmosphere of disaster and end-of-life destruction. Japanese anime and video games are also popular in wars that destroy the world and monsters such as Godzilla. Murakami explained that this reflects that Japan is still unable to accept the experience of past wars. During the occupation, the United States deliberately concealed the terrifying news related to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving Japan with unvented anger and very depressed emotions. Japan has not really faced the atrocities committed by its own country. Murakami believes that the United States has successfully turned Japan into a pacifist country, and that the country is full of irresponsible consumers who only care about money and interests, and hand over war and peace-related matters to the Americans:

The United States cultivated post-war Japan and gave Japan new life. The Americans told us that the essence of life is that life is meaningless. They tell us not to think too much when we are alive. Our social and hierarchical structure was disintegrated. They force us to accept a system that does not produce “adults”…

In the past 60 years, Japan has become an experimental ground for American capitalism and has been protected in a greenhouse… We Japanese have completely become coaxed children… We often make troubles unreasonably and indulge in our own loveliness.

Looking at the works of Murakami and his colleagues, images of the bound little girl, the exploding galaxy, the atomic cloud, the Pacific War, and the angry pre-adolescent children—these are frustrated Peter Pan’s inner fantasies: While fantasizing that his own nation is omnipotent; while lying in a crowded corner of a suburban apartment, typing on the keyboard on his personal computer. This is the so-called “Otaku” culture, which literally means “your home”. It is used to describe the millions of otaku/women who are immersed in their inner fantasy world, and their heads are filled with comic strips and computer games. Murakami believes that these Japanese have no sense of responsibility for the real world, and hide in a virtual world where the world can be wiped out by just pressing the mouse. These are all related to war, the castration of Japan by the atomic bomb, and American capitalism.

Murakami and other theorists who hold the same view have linked this childish “noisy” and “omnipotent” fantasy with certain actual acts of violence. These people truly believe that a utopia can be found by declaring war on the world. This actually stems from very deep self-pity.

In all stages of Japanese art history, various changes of “erotic, absurd, and unreasonable” can be seen, which may be related to the long-term repressive tradition of Japanese society. Who knows, just like a little boy over-protected by his mother, when the shackles of society fell on them, childhood memories became the lost garden of Eden that they had to wait and see until they died. I think Murakami is right about one thing: what they are fighting for is political incompetence; the rest is just talking about sorrow. When radical energy cannot find an outlet politically, it will internalize. First, the protest itself became extremely violent, and then the absurd lust. We can see that many artists turned from political extremism to eroticism in the 1970s.

In a way, Japan has always been like this. Japan almost became a police state during the shogunate, and there was no room for political dissent. Instead, men were allowed to vent in designated weathered areas, and their oiran became stars of popular art and novels. The more recent version of this phenomenon is Asakusa in Kawabata.

“Otaku” and another term commonly used by neo-Protheorists, “Slow い” (meaning relaxation, laziness), both represent a lack of vitality. Pornography in contemporary Japanese art is virtual, not physical, but narcissistic, not shared with others, and only occurs in the heads of otakus. I think that from here on, it is not just a phenomenon unique to Japan.

Whether in art or in life, the virtual world is a perfect option for a person who is free from politics, art, sex and other groups. This is why Murakami Haruki’s novels are so successful, especially in East Asia and Western regions where otaku culture is popular. Haruki Murakami’s character is out of touch with society, often isolated from the world, living in his own imaginary world. This trend began in the 1960s, silently rebelling against large families and their joint responsibility. Just because the family is the main symbol of “restriction”, people tend to interpret individualism in a narrow sense, so they hide in “solipsism”, where no one can contact you.

Another way to get rid of traditional life is to rebuild an alternative family. Theatrical troupes and hippie communities everywhere in the 1960s were exactly the same. Takashi Murakami himself did this and became the patriarch of an artist family. However, these artists fully displayed the various characteristics of self-centeredness-somewhat lazy and terrifying, it is an absurd world where sex and violence are not real, and this world is often “beautiful” and annoying.

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