Zany and insane, Takashi Murakami's Close Encounters of the Third Kind shows DOB, one of the most prominent figures in his own personal iconography, staring up in horror at some swirling ball-like entity of mostly abstract anime-style imagery. Surrounded by a rough circle of psychedelic, possibly psychotic, many-eyed mushrooms, DOB appears panicked as his strange manga-style world of cutesy animated and anthropomorphised characters is invaded by this crazy alien presence. The mushrooms and the figure of DOB clearly come from the same ether, the same cultural background, as the kitsch and cutesy-- or 'kawaii'-- characters with which Japan is filled, from Hello Kitty and Docomodake to those in the films of Hayao Miyazake. Murakami bridges the world of the so-called High Art-- of the gallery space and curators and, in the metallic sheen of this picture, of traditional Japanese painting-- and that of popular culture and disenfranchised fans by creating pictures such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which present the artist's own adaptation and reincarnation of an aesthetic familiar from the television programmes, posters and merchandise endemic in Japan. "The subject matter of my art, it is like Cezanne painting Mont Ste. Victoire," Murakami has explained. "I am surrounded by cute images and figures from cartoons and comic books, and so that is what I paint" (Murakami, quoted in R. Hopkins, "Shiny, happy mushrooms: Takashi Murakami brings Tokyo cool to the MFA", in The Boston Phoenix, May 2001, at thebostonphoenix.com).
Murakami has not allowed these creatures and characters to emerge unscathed: there is an overtly sinister aspect in Close Encounters of the Third Kind both to the large, threatening entity and to the all-seeing mushrooms. While mushrooms have a wealth of cultural implications in Japan, being associated with food, medicine, longevity, good luck and so forth, their role in Murakami's works is also linked to older artists, to eroticism, and of course to the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasake that continue to cast their shadow on Japanese history. Indeed, that sense of the mushroom cloud, of the terror of the unfamiliar threat, is openly evoked in the sinister, looming maelstrom that dominates the surface of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. DOB appears terrified by this uncanny amalgam of shifting shapes with occasional recognisable elements such as cartoonish toothy grins implying that it is animate, intelligent-- and possibly deranged.
Murakami's work is paradoxically full of glee and terror. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has an intense, hallucinogenic beauty that is perfectly suited to the strange theme of danger in paradise, of a loss of innocence. Murakami has tellingly taken his title from one of Stephen Spielberg's best-known films. Spielberg's films have sometimes served as important reference-points for Murakami, involving as they do the interplay and interface between the world of adults and the world of children. For Murakami, these worlds are not so easily delineated, especially in Japan, the home of the otaku, a layer of society occupied by a devoted, even fanatical followers of anime and manga. Here, there is a strange tension between the sweet, childish and cartoony image of DOB and his fungal friends and the looming threat of some new and awesome reality.