Da' Bomb! Japan's Subcults Point Fingers While Looking Inward

Japan Society’s monster mash
photo: Sheldan Collins

Your country lies in radioactive ruins; your rapacious military has been castrated; hated barbarians write your new constitution. Naturally, you rebel, and eventually unleash upon the world . . . life-size plushies.

A bipedal persimmon greets visitors to "Little Boy," its doe-eyed visage typical of the cuddly civic mascots that represent many Japanese municipalities. Descended from cinematic actors in monster costumes trampling miniature cities, these hybrids embody curator Takashi Murakami's thesis that catastrophic defeat in World War II turned the Japanese into "bloated little children." And children must have toys—just beyond the ranks of Hello Kitty merchandise, 14 Godzilla models snarl before an enlarged excerpt from Japan's 1946 constitution (promulgated by the American occupiers): "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right." Officially pacifist amid Cold War anxieties, Japan crouched beneath the U.S.'s protective nuclear umbrella. Is the exhibit's phalanx of Jurassic reptiles (in the original movie, Godzilla is awakened from hibernation by an H-bomb test) raging against the victor's paternalism?

Murakami flattens the distinction between pop culture—manga, anime, and sci-fi, laced with atomic imagery—and contemporary Japanese art; Izumi Kato's haunting canvases of a mutant couple (her swollen genitals glowing as if irradiated, his puffy and drooping) are a hellish vision of inflamed impotence. They flank a vitrine crammed with tiny bears driving Formula One cars and Ski-Doos and other plastic ephemera. Some walls are hung floor-to-ceiling with pseudo-scientific anatomical sketches of monstrous characters from the Ultraman TV show; others display Chinatsu Ban's tender acrylics of elephants in comforting "underpants," which in turn contrast with Aya Takano's androgynous waifs, nude limbs entwined, knees, elbows, and cheeks flushed pink from mysterious exertion.


Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture
Japan Society
333 East 47th Street
Through July 24

Sixty years ago the Japanese lost the war; this disturbing, funny, passionate exhibit argues that they're still searching for their soul.

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