Of all the art movements that have come out of Japan, Super Flat is one that sits on the border between visual art and commercialism. It is seen on display across both art galleries and different companies for product marketing purposes. Though diverse in its styles and interpretations, Super Flat typically combines the flatness of commercial graphic design with the pop-culture aesthetic of anime and manga characters. In this, Super Flat defies the conventionality of traditional artwork, creating a new movement that bridges graphic design and manga art. Engulfed in vibrant colors, Superflat is a wild fusion of traditional Nihonga art and recognizable Japanese consumerist culture.
Nihonga art– literally translating to “Japanese Style art” — originated around 1900 onwards as a form that combined the traditional Japanese art conventions, techniques and materials. The movement was a way to reinvigorate Japanese aesthetics in a modern, monochromatic style to combat the growing Western presence in Edo (Tokyo). Looking at the approach to Super Flat artwork today, it’s easy to see how it subtly mirrors the style and intent of its origins. Though now evolved, it can be said that Super Flat follows the same technique as Nihonga. Its block-color palette and thick, dark lines deliver the artwork down a familiar path, utilizing the traditional delivery of “flattened” art to create subjects of fantasy, imagination and kawaii horror.
Super Flat is, in this way, both a celebration and criticism of Japanese culture. Pulling from the style of traditional artwork to, in most cases, provide a subversive look at “otakuism” and its themes of childhood playfulness and sexual fetishism. In this, Super Flat can take an obvious direction from cute colorful graphics to grotesque and distorted images. One artist who has interpreted Super Flat art in this light is Machino Henmaru. Machino’s work falls within the theme of EroGuro (erotic grotesqueness), and speaks to the disturbing “hentai” culture that is pervasive in Japanese mass media. Super Flat not only alludes to the flattening of the subjects, but also to the contraction of the borders between traditional culture and mainstream consumption, appropriate or not.
When discussing Super Flat, it’s impossible to overlook the founder and most famous name in the art movement, Murakami Takashi. After he rose to prominence in the 2000s, Murakami established himself as a pioneer for the contemporary art movement in his promotion of its branded, two-dimensional features. Armed with his signature cute and otherworldly nameless yet recurring characters, Murakami blurs the line between high-end art and common modern Japanese aesthetics. This is most obvious in the literal branding of his artwork. Murakami has collaborated with fashion labels such as Louis Vuitton in 2002, whose bags and accessories remain iconic, and Kanye West, whose album cover was designed by Murakami.
The pop of colors and large, shining eyes that are typical of his style may be seen as shallow and out of place on high-end branded goods. But this is the exact commentary that Murakami, and other Super Flat artists, try to make. With consumerism as his subject and canvas, Murakami has paved the way for young artists to pull from the character-featured society that they are familiar and comfortable with.
Super Flat could be seen as the marriage between art and commercialism, in a sense redefining the principles behind what people think art needs to be. The movement is, loosely put, up to the artist’s interpretation, and as a result, the artwork that is produced is diverse and wildly different. As Murakami stated in his ‘Super Flat declaration’, “Japan might be the future of the world. And the Japan of today is SUPER FLAT.”