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Japan’s increasingly superficial pop culture?

Superflat is a new phrase I have discovered today. It sounds like an obscure 60s rock band but is actually a growing artistic movement subverting, rejecting and critiquing Japan’s increasingly superficial pop culture; often by lampooning it with artwork that features the cute, smiling face of a young anime character surrounded by or oblivious to a grotesque or hard hitting monstrosity.

Of the paintings I’ve seen online, the best of “superflat” is both funny and provocative; an important parody of (particularly) the moe aesthetic that current dominates Japan’s (and increasingly, the world’s) otaku and does well to highlight the hollow soul at it’s centre – in particular, the way fawning otaku can escape or gloss over an often disgusting or unsettling reality simply because a certain character looks cute. The old fashioned style of narrative story telling is dying, apparently the character (designs) are all that matter.

It’s interesting to consider works by the likes of Studio 4°C, Hideaki “Evangelion” Anno and Satoshi “Perfect Blue” Kon are often regarded as “superflat” simply because they have created anime that snub, rather than pander to, the ever demanding otaku crowd. Generally “superflat” is just another way of saying “original”, but today it’s becoming ever more important to make a distinction between the mass-produced barrels of fan service and genuine artistic endeavour.

Recommended articles on Superflat

Superflat on Wikipedia
Superflat Japanese Postmodernity
Superflat by Artnet

Comments

Hige says:

I’m surprised Hideki Anno is considered superflat. Gainax, perhaps, if you consider the majority of Kazuya Tsurumaki’s output (well, FLCL), but even then… didn’t Gainax pretty much invent fanservice? Didn’t Anno direct some of the most otaku-baiting shows of past twenty-odd years?

I suppose it could be one massive subversion on the studio’s part… as they walks to the bank to cash their Eva merchandise cheques.

To be honest, as much as I love Gainax, I find it hard to ignore the cynicism I feel when they get heralded as artistes.

Kon, on the other hand, is almost entirely subversive in his work. Superflat4life.

kuromitsu says:

"The old fashioned style of narrative story telling is dying, apparently the character (designs) are all that matter." – The character designs and what they do with them. I was just talking about this with a friend yesterday, on the topic of Code Geass and Gundam Seed – it seems to me that nowadays the only kind of anime that can reach a relatively okay popularity is the one that’s basically one huge pile of unisex fanservice. (Stuff like Honey and Clover are different, of course, since they appeal to a wider crowd, not only otaku.) Sleek, easy-on-the-eye designs? Check. Bishoujo? Check. Shower scenes, lingerie scenes, nekomimi, other moe stuff? Check. All kinds of bishounen? Check. "Pairable" bishounen for yaoi fans? Check. Mecha, to boost merchandise sales? Check. Cosplayable costumes? Check. Etc. etc.

I’m not saying these series are not entertaining (a LOT of people would disagree) or that everyone who watches them should be ashamed of themselves, but still, it’s kind of baffling to think about the cynicism behind it all. Especially that in the meanwhile we have several shows that are struggling, simply because they don’t pander to otaku.

As for Anno being superflat… well, he may have been, once, when he came up with Eva (as much as I don’t like the show, it was rather unique in its days). But I don’t remember him doing anything particularly "superflat" ever since…

Hazel says:

That’s really really interesting, I hadn’t heard of superflat. Thanks for writing this!

DrmChsr0 says:

I tend to disagree with one or two points of kuromitsu there.

If you take a look at visual novels, You get to see that sometimes, art is not a determining factor, it’s the story that makes it sell. Note that I use the word sometimes. Because the majority of VNs fall under the whole ‘character designs matter’ flavor.

BUt yeah, the art of storytelling is dying, and the few that keep it alive have to make a strong point about it.

Heck, it’s not just Japan that’s suffering from it, America, Europe, hell, the whole world has lost what it means to tell a good story. I mean, For every Psychonauts or Neverwinter Nights, we have hundreds of games witht the storytelling creativity of a rock, like the Madden series, about 65% of all First-Person-Shooters and pretty much every MMORPG in existence (Okay, maybe not City of Heroes/Villains and Auto Assault).

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the capitalism, destroyer of literature and culture.

rabidkimba says:

I don’t particularly want to get into a discussion/argument over superflat in general because I’m not well versed enough in how to properly wave your hands in the air and speak crazy postmodern mumbo-jumbo, but a few thoughts I had –

Like Hige, I’m also a little put off by calling Anno and Eva superflat, for a couple reasons. Primarily, it bothers me to see a show that could possibly be one of the most important shows of its decade as outside of anime itself. The medium isn’t the message, but at the same time we need to give the art form its credit: subversive anime should be called just that. Unfortunately, all I’ve seen of Kon’s is Paranoia Agent, (forgive me! I need to see more -_-) but I feel the same there too.

I can’t pinpoint what bothers me about Murakami’s superflat movement, but one thing for sure, (however counter-revolutionary this may be) is my overwhelming preference for subversiveness or a general “hey, this is wrong” message coming from inside a subculture instead of from someone that takes steps to distance themselves from it. I mean, you don’t see the manga-ka of NHK or even Uziga making Luis Vitton bags (youtube vuitton superflat, spam filter hates me) or decorating the super-rich, “everything is new, everything is perfect” roppongi hills (http://www.designboom.com/eng/funclub/roppongi.html) Despite the rationalizations I’ve seen, things like that seem like just as much of a cash grab as Eva could ever hope to be.

Since I just reloaded the page and noticed a few more comments, Drm: Are you sure that it’s the world losing the ability to tell a good story, or more of you being much more aware of the landscape of media coming out now than what’s been filtered down to you through the years? Also, don’t you think your last sentence is a little too harsh? I’m pretty sure that Sturgeon’s rule has been around for far longer than capitalism.

bateszi says:

I was considering not including mention of Anno (though he is referenced on the Wikipedia page about superflat) but thinking about Evangelion, in spite of its gigantic popularity, there is no doubting it’s the work of an extremely eccentric auteur; lets consider Evangelion’s withdrawn and cerebral conclusion, Shinji masturbating over the comatose body of Asuka – it’s not really what I’d describe as typical anime fluff (I’m looking at Kanon here). For me Evangelion stands tall as a unique and rightly celebrated work of art. I’d probably liken him to Kurt Cobain in this sense.

***

Generally people are perhaps now more than ever before able to submerge themselves in fantasy, they are falling in love with and obsessing over fictional characters. And so the character, rather than the story, becomes the focus of their attention. I just find this kind of thing completely vacant and utterly superficial.

"Ichigo Mashimaro" is a series about little girls animated for older men. Is there even a story to this show? Or are people just sitting back and watching a bunch of school kids DOING NOTHING?

Is the story important anymore?

Michael B. says:

First off, I want to commend you on your inclusion of a work of Tatsuyuki Tanaka’s, from Cannabis Works. That’s a great work, and rightly deserves to be put as the poster image for a discussion on the superflat movement.

I have been increasingly driven over the past few months towards relatively independent, lesser known works (such as Paper XI, by Dan Kim, which, though he is one of the most well-known internet webcomic artists next to Fred Gallagher, is still a masterpiece of storytelling and art), particularly in the webcomic scene. Why do I say this? It’s increasingly more difficult to find works that do not pander to a commercially viable slice of the population. And when you do find such things, they are typically in short supply, underappreciated, or both.

The rarity of great works should be equally expected and accepted. Diamonds are valuable by their rarity. If the entire world all of a sudden began to produce art on the level of Michelangelo, it would no longer be as valued, simply by being so commonplace. This is not to say that beauty is simply a measure of scarcity. The world would be far more beautiful if everyone were capable of producing "Michelangelean" works. However, they would no longer be appreciated, just as people who grow up wealthy do not appreciate that wealth until it is stripped away.

So what’s the point of what I’ve just written? In the modern world, with the luxury of instant communication and the immediate "publishing" capabilities of the individual, who normally would have to go through many layers of critique and oversight to get their works to appear in front of a wide audience, the self-centered nature of man is increasingly satiated. The superficial pop culture of the Japanese is a response to this increasingly self-centered world. It becomes ever more superficial in order to satisfy the needs of a population that is finding that the needs for its ever-expanding ego can be obtained through the internet. Superflat is indirectly responding to the ability of the "masses" to produce, in a quantity unachievable in the past, works of "art" (rarely they are) that reach a mass audience, at no cost.

There’s far more to this discussion than what I’ve just covered, in particular what happens when individuals begin to realize that self-centeredness leads to an empty existence (which is also part of what superflat attemps to address). However, this comment is long enough as it is. Great post, Bateszi.

rabidkimba says:

I’m a tad biased towards Ichimashi since I worked on some early fansubs of it, but…

The way I see it, light-hearted/slice of life comedies like Ichimashi (along with other works, like most of Kiyohiko Azuma’s output) almost requires the characters to play a much larger role than the story itself. Also, this character-based approach to manga/anime isn’t really anything new, Kazuo Koike has been teaching this and writing this way for something like 30+ years now. Say what you will about him, but there’s no denying that he’s a successful man and has influenced other succesful manga-ka, like Rumiko Takahashi.

However depressing it may be, it seems like the case is something along the lines of write good characters, get lots of sales, write a good story, get good reviews, write great both, secure a place in history? All conjecture, of course, but that’s just whats coming to my head right now.

Anyway, I hadn’t noticed the blog before on nano, but I like your writing a lot more than most of the other anime blogs I’ve taken a look at. (Despite differences I may have with some of your opinions) Keep up the good work!

Martin says:

Does that make me a ‘superflat fanboy’ then? ;) seriously though, I was drawn to the lampooning techniques of Anno and Kon (who are two of my all-time favourite film directors, animated or otherwise) almost as soon as I was aware of the stereotypes themselves, although I’m a huge admirer of their talents as directors to begin with.

A backlash like this is long overdue especially as long as it’s of this kind of quality! The fact that not everyone notices that Gainax and 4 degrees C are in fact poking fun at the more obsessive areas of their fanbase just goes to show how subtle and clever their humour is.

Hige says:

See, using the Eva movie is easy when exemplifying Anno’s potential superflat creds: it’s pretty much a posthumous fuck-you to the fanboys (though I want to make clear that it’s not entirely that. I know there’s a lot of depth and worth to it and I consider it to be my favourite aspect of the Eva mythos, but its reactionary inception is still an important part of its existence).

But as kuromitsu says, what else has he done before or after that? The best I can think of is the final episode of Gunbuster, but even then that seemed driven more by a directional style rather than a political/social message.

Incidentally, have you seen Kon’s ‘Paprika’ yet? I haven’t and I’m desperate. Apparently it’s his best yet. :x

Questmark says:

Ok,
The thing that really bothers me is that people are always complaining that "culture" is going down the drain. Look, capitalism has been hard at work in western culture for a long time, and what do we have to show for it?? Dickinson, Whitman, Fellini, Speilberg– and Halo, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and endlessly crappy detective novels from the 30’s and 40’s. My point? We’ve been producing crap for ages, it’s nothing new. And despite that, we’ve also been producing some very fascinating, artistically viable work as well. It just bugs the hell out of me when people think we’re going through something special and peculiar culturally right now.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a plethora of crapola out there (and a reasonable amount of moe amongst it), but as for anime– I could easily make a case that far more mature work is being produced on a regular basis than has been done in 10 or 20 or 30 years. Anime has graduated past just being mecha shows for 10 year old boys and panty shots– here we are discussing when "Paprika" is going to come out, and although it’s not the norm, Kon isn’t the only quality work being produced. Just look at shows like Kino’s Journey, or Mushishi, or Miyazaki’s work. Much of the content of these shows just wouldn’t have been viable in the market, here or in Japan, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or possibly ever. We should be thankful things are as diverse as they are.

And as for storytelling having died– the same thing there, IMO. The truth is that Narrative is out there, more now than it’s been in years, and authors like Calvino and Borges and Marquez are huge names, produced great work only 30 years ago, and their work is totally narrative based. Great movies are still being made too. Of course there’s lots of bad movies being made, but that’s always been the case.

Whether video games have a story or not doesn’t count, to me– they’ve never been a highwater mark for storytelling anyways. They’re meant to be mindless fun, largely. Saying current releases aren’t narratively based doesn’t really show me much– it just says that the market for video game users is more about immediate visceral responses than deep, drawn out thinking.

Beyond all that– my experience with Japanese motifs with storytelling is that the "through line" of western storytelling just isn’t as important culturally. This is largely based on my reading of Japanese novels, their poetry, and watching a bunch of anime, so I’m no expert… but still– it’s about mood, transient moments, and character interaction. It always has been. Japanese stories have always disregarded the importance of an ending, from the "Tale of Genji" to Murakami’s "The Wind Up Bird Chronicles" to "Eva". Critiquing anime based on Western story telling conventions just doesn’t make much sense to me– that isn’t what many of the shows are aiming for. And yes, I know that’s a very broad statement, and that there are shows out there trying to tell stories and are sucking at it– but there should atleast be some recognition of some of the cultural roots of anime as a storytelling device.

Anyways– I know this is a terribly long rant, and I _do_ think there’s real value to this "super flat" agenda, as it is obviously aiming for an attitude that is expecting more from artistic and cultural production (which is great, and to be commended), but there’s also something to said for the other side of the argument.

Hige says:

Questmark: Agreed on most fronts. Society has always been apocalyptic when assessing its current cultural merit, and that consensus is easily applied to anime.

I agree specifically with people’s inability to see what is on offer now, and the desire to constantly compare the current with the past. Miyazaki has made some of his best films in the last decade (or at the very least kept up his incredible standard); Kon continues to be mature and thoughtful with his output; TV shows like Ghost in the Shell: SAC & 2nd GIG are being made and are popular, as well as numerous others offering ‘high-brow’ intelligent work.

As you say, the good stuff is out there but not in the vast quantities as all the moe, otaku dross. And obviously, because thoughtful, mature entertainment can’t be pulled out of the air.

Relating this to superflat, I view the movement as a kind of anime-related satire. And satire has been around for millennia, so its existence is hardly a harbinger of doom or suggestive of degradation. If anything, it underlines how integrated anime has become into cultural thought processes.

[…] with the sacrifice of countless others. Our endearment to her innocence and beauty, much like the superflat movement, is intentionally subverted by the corpses propping up her health. Again, Kino reminds us […]

[…] realities (captured beautifully above); come to think of it, it’s so much like this piece of superflat art by Tatsuyuki […]

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