So much in the past week on Takashi Murakami. The NYTimes had three articles alone!
The first article includes a meeting with Hello Kitty's chief designer comparing the cuteness of Sanrio characters to some of Murakami's creations:
She was troubled by Kaikai's smiling mouth. ''In most Sanrio characters, we don't express an emotion through the mouth,'' she said. ''With Kitty, you don't even see a mouth.'' She credited this mouthlessness for much of Kitty's popularity. ''When someone feels blue or depressed, they may want the character to sympathize with their feeling or to get angry with them or to offer encouragement,'' she said. ''Without a clear expression of the mouth, this is possible. It can be interpreted in different ways.''
This goes way back in Japanese art and is called hikime kagihana, literally "line-eye hook-nose". Eyes are defined by two thin curved lines with the nose a simple hook. The mouth is barely there, not even worth mentioning. A classic example and one of the best artworks ever is the 1120 version of the Genji Monogatari e-maki.
There is a point to hikime kagihana, which the Sanrio designer states, and that is to identify with the character. If you look at images of peasants in e-maki you will find a great deal of expression and detail - wrinkles, missing teeth, open laughter. The aristocracy who created and enjoyed the e-maki had no desire to project themselves onto peasants.
Murakami certainly knows all this so it's interesting that he chooses to create and market mostly non-hikime kagihana characters. He would do better commercially without them. All of the recent Murakami related articles make pains to state that in Japan there is no distinction between art and non-art but there are definitely class distinctions. Murakami is the son of a taxi driver - an extremely demanding job in Japan and not very high up on the ladder. I'm wondering if Murakami is not in some ways attempting a peasant revolution?
Following is an excerpted e-mail from a thirty-year old female Japanese friend sent 11/26/2003 which may be a reflection of the general public:
"i went to mori art museum today - it was so huge building and i saw the exhibition called happiness ...
... also there is floors and walls that murakami did - u know i used to like his stuff but now feel too much and it even looks ugly - tired of his prints everywhere ...
hello kitty is much better. i know kitty since i was born but she still ok with me."
It might be helpful to know that the Mori Building is a big Tokyo tourist destination because of the views. The museum is on the top floors but I think that for most visitors the museum visit is secondary - my friend is not a huge art lover/follower.