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Japanese Art, Contemporary

Japanese Art, Contemporary

The signs of Western childhood play a very prominent role in postWorld War II Japanese popular art, which has become increasingly global in its reach. This imagery, which is loosely called anime, takes many forms, including animated films, books, still drawings, playing cards, clothing, accessories, and toys.

Begun in reaction to the events of World War II, anime have been described as both evidence of Japanese cultural vitality in the face of trauma and an escape from it. The great anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka codified the genre in the 1960s, establishing an anime facial type and a distilled drawing style that eschews fluid realism and emphasizes metamorphosis. Overall, the look of anime has been dubbed "superflat." Classic examples of anime film include Princess Mononoke (1997) by Hayao Miyazaki (the highest-grossing Japanese film of any genre) and Ghost in the Shell (1995).

The salient characteristic of Japanese popular art within the history of childhood is its wholesale adoption of distinctly Western conventions for representing the ideal of innocent childhoodhybridized with traditionally Japanese manga comic drawings and mainstream Western cartoons. Most importantly, the large, round-eyed facial features of the stereotypically innocent child quickly became the standard mode of representing anime heroes and heroines, despite their clear racial difference from Japanese facial features. The complete roster of Western childhood toy and costume imagery also reappeared in anime, and, intensified, has spread through Japanese popular culture to become a popular esthetic, sometimes called kawaii.

Kawaii can be translated as "cute," "cool," "pretty," and "sweet," but also "smart" and "elaborate." But although the Western image of childhood is often translated into Japanese culture in a hyper-cute mode, just as often anime are about extremes of sex and violence (and also often deal with post-nuclear environmental issues). The stereotype of the Western schoolgirl, for instance, dressed in white blouse, pleated plaid skirt, socks, and flat shoes, has become a highly sexual image in Japanese popular art. The many people, referred to as otaku, who are preoccupied with kawaii, anime, and manga, are hardly all children, but rather a growing group of all ages that has spread outward from Japan.

Since the mid-1990s, the globalization of culture in general, and, more particularly, trends in contemporary high art to adopt the styles of popular art, have brought attention to Japanese popular art on a new scale. The work of leading otaku artists such as Yoshimoto Nara and Takashi Murakami are now widely exhibited in the West in galleries and museums. Western artists, moreover, have begun to incorporate anime imagery into their traditions, causing the stereotypes of childhood to reappear where they came from in radically new modes. A group of artists led by the award-winning French conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe, for instance, created a series of works made between 1999 and 2002, collectively titled No Ghost Just a Shell, based on an anime girl character called Annlee. These works addressed a range of distinctly adult concerns. As with other aspects of a post-modern, global culture, the signs of what was once considered inherently natural, in this case innocent childhood, have been detached from their content.

See also: Comic Books; Globalization; Images of Childhood.


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Anne Higonnet

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