Goddesses and Monsters


A pair of 12-foot-tall, inflatable pink bunnies greet visitors to “My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation,” an engaging if uneven show currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. On a recent afternoon, a little girl in braids and a checkered pink dress stood mesmerized before them. Nearby, a wall label explained that the work, an installation by artist Momoyo Torimitsu, embodied the Japanese aesthetic of kawaii, or cuteness, but she seemed to grasp the concept intuitively. These goofy monstrosities offer the mingled pleasures of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a Dadaist send-up of the museum itself.

“My Reality” presents work by 18 artists, half from Asia and half from the West, who are influenced to varying degrees by Japanese animation, also known as anime, and comic books, or manga. Those popular art forms are phenomenally widespread in Japan, where genres are tailored to suit every consumer. Hayao Miyazaki’s intricately beautiful anime, Princess Mononoke, was the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, while boys’ manga adventure stories, salary men’s erotic tales, comic books for young mothers and mah-jongg aficionados, are all cheap and ubiquitous.

Scholars have traced the development of manga and anime back to traditional ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, early scroll painting, and even the ideographic script of ancient Japanese. But their commercial forms took off in the wake of Japan’s defeat in World War II, when America made the world safe for Walt Disney. More recently, their combination of kinetic visuals, childlike simplicity, and unpredictable perversity has won a substantial following in this country, where fans attend conferences dressed as their favorite anime characters.

Organized by Jeff Fleming and Susan Lubowsky Talbott of the Des Moines Art Center (and coordinated by Independent Curators International), “My Reality” promises to be a funhouse hall of mirrors, where the reflections between Western and Asian popular culture and art bounce off each other continually. But the show offers no serious introduction to manga and anime for non-initiates—no sample comics or video loops of animation. And the formal concerns of the Western artists it includes seem largely remote from their Asian counterparts.

Paul McCarthy’s plastic heads of dwarves from Disney’s Snow White, for example, are pure products of empire—monolithic modern gods, radiating a totemic inscrutability. James Esber’s wall painting of Mon Mon, an anime character distorted and pieced together from splayed bits of plasticine, harks back to the gestural immediacy of a Van Gogh or El Greco. Inka Essenhigh’s battling, biomorphic forms come a bit closer to the spirit of anime, floating free of gravity across the smooth, lacquered finish of her subtly hued canvases and conjuring up a mysterious world where bodies as we know them have ceased to exist.

In an age of artificial hearts and robotic toy dogs, the shifting no-man’s-land between humanity and the machine provides fertile ground for anime-inspired imaginings. Storytellers from Mary Shelley to Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick (in AI) have empathized with automatons yearning to be loved as unique individuals. Japanese animation classic Ghost in the Shell presents cyborgs (wholly or semi-mechanical organisms) as creatures suffused with all-too-human longings and anxieties.

French artist Pierre Huyghe’s recent show at Marian Goodman Gallery included a poignant videotape in which a Japanese digital cartoon figure gave voice to crushing ontological uncertainties. Its presence here might have shored up the shaky selection of Western artists considerably. Instead, we’re given Charlie White’s Joshua, a pathetic android monster whom the artist created and photographed in different social settings—eating birthday cake in a basement filled with beefy adolescents or flirting at a cocktail party—presumably to highlight the artificiality of “normal” human behavior. It’s difficult to separate the teenage anxiety about fitting in that this work expresses from the feeling that the work itself seems juvenile.

In contrast, Japanese artist Mariko Mori’s elaborately staged photographs and video tableaux are richly layered with culture and history, as she transforms herself into an otherworldly being—part Shinto goddess, part cyborgian fashion model. And Lee Bul, a Korean artist, makes pale celadon porcelain sculptures representing body fragments fused with armor that seem at once ancient and hypermodern.

“Anime,” the curators assert in an introductory panel, “presents technology as a positive force in contemporary society.” But it’s hard to imagine a purely celebratory approach to modern science emerging from Japan, a country that suffered the annihilating effects of nuclear holocaust. In fact, beneath their lovable, candy-bright surfaces, many works by Japanese artists here explore the dark side of technological advances and consumerism. Whimsy vies with dire prognostication in Kenji Yanobe’s robot-like vending machine, which dispenses “survival capsules” containing matchbooks, cookies, aspirin, or tea bags. Yanobe also designs vehicles meant to encase a single body. His white bumper car and yellow Victorian diving bell on wheels share a faintly ridiculous, retro appeal, but they suggest the impermeable shells necessary to survive in both today’s world and tomorrow’s apocalypse.

Media darling Takashi Murakami has grabbed the spotlight in the past year with a series of eye-popping exhibitions showcasing his “Superflat” visual style, which self-consciously borrows elements from Warhol, ’60s psychedelic culture, and Disney. Here, in a multipart sculptural installation, the signature creation he calls DOB (a mutant Mickey Mouse) stands in a grove of wildly colored mushrooms that sport toothy fringes and weird, proliferating eyes. But DOB is no mere stuffed animal. His red mouth is open in alarm, and his lightning bolt tail stands at attention; in front and behind him, his hands are raised in a gesture that says “Stand back!” as if warning viewers away from a Chernobyl-like disaster zone.

Hardcore devotees of manga and anime have been stigmatized in Japan as otaku (roughly translated as “nerds”)—craven addicts, lacking communication skills and fixated to the point of neglecting all relationships. Representing a dangerous tendency, they linger near the bottom of Japan’s social hierarchy. The Aum Shinrikiyo¯ cult, responsible for the 1995 nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway station, used manga to spread its message; six years earlier, a serial killer of young girls took the name of a popular comic book character as a pseudonym.

Anime’s images of blankly smiling schoolgirls are often disturbingly eroticized and laced with violence. An artist known simply as Mr. (Masakatu Iwamoto) evokes this creepy, obsessional aspect of otaku culture with dozens of shopping receipts and scraps of paper taped to the walls; on each one, using colored pencils, he’s drawn little girls with ponytails, pert attitudes, and bright orange smiles. Unseen breezes lift some of their skirts to reveal neat white underwear.

The flip side to his pubescent pinups may be found in Yoshitomo Nara’s painting of an angry little girl creature, holding a limp, two-leaf clover in her outstretched paw. Nara’s work frequently focuses on delicate, cartoon-like images, painted in pastel colors, of demonic children emitting a strange mixture of naïveté and threat. The show also includes one of his sculptures: two stylized children’s heads with closed eyes, white as porcelain and floating in a white cup, like Alice in Wonderland’s tea party gone awry. Its dreamy fragility, both kitschy and unsettling, evokes childhood’s easily shattered aura of innocence. “Kids,” Nara said in a recent interview, “they’re pure evil.” The curators of this exhibition, targeting an audience of adolescents, young families, and children, might have taken this opinion to heart, diving into anime’s weirder depths, instead of skimming its shiny, safe surface.